Give yourself the gift of
unshine this winter--plus time and space to get that book moving along!
Still room in my two winter writing retreats in Tuscon or Santa Fe this January and March.
January 14-17 at Tanque Verde Ranch and Resort, Tucson, Arizona
Plenty of desert quiet, sunshine and 70 degree weather, hikes, horses, and wide open skies to nurture your winter-weary self and boost your writing. Includes daily writing workshops or private coaching with Mary, evening activities, five-star meals, great community. Small group insures plenty of writing time and personal support from Mary. Choose either the workshop week or independent study option. Click below for more information. $775.
March 25-29 at the Plaza Hilton in downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico
Beautiful Santa Fe welcomes you for a week of writing among the inspiration of great art and landscape. Our retreat hotel is adobe-style elegance right off the Old Plaza in downtown, walking distance to great shopping, over 100 galleries (including the Georgia O'Keefe museum), and excellent restaurants. You'll attend daily workshops or private coaching, join the retreat community for meals, and have plenty of writing time and support from Mary to take leaps with your book. Small group insures plenty of writing time and personal attention. Choose either the workshop week or independent study option. Click below for more information. $775.
"Since taking classes with you, I've tried a couple of work-shopping classes with other teachers. It's just not the same. I have not yet found anyone of your caliber.
"You are generous
with your time, so thoughtful and insightful in knowing just what type of comments will move writers forward, and obviously knowledgeable
about book structure. Whatever it is you are doing to create such a supportive online community is NOT the norm. No other online class I've taken has come close to creating the kind of support
I've felt in
Start with a big love of words, add a generous helping of
Mary Carroll Moore,
mix with leavening from your peers, knead vigorously
for twelve weeks,
Your book has risen!"
--Eric Utne, founder of Utne Reader and past attendee of Mary's classes
|"The best writing book I've ever used." --P.W. ,CA
WINNER! 2011 NH LITERARY AWARDS--READER'S CHOICE AWARD
Buy a copy now
I love hearing from readers! If you have a question about writing or book structure, email me at mary[at]marycarrollmoore[dot]com and I'll happily respond in a blog post. (To read any posts you missed, visit my award-winning
Writing through Trauma: Two Published Memoirists Share Their Experiences with Writing and Finishing Their Books
Two of my past students released new books this year. Katherine Dering, of New York, launched her second memoir,
and Judith Mattison, of Minnesota, published her first,
I Will Not Break.
Both write about trauma, Katherine about grave mental illness and loss and Judie about abuse. Not easy subjects, so this week I interviewed each of them about their journey through writing these books, how they mined their difficult subjects, and how they took care of themselves during the process.
Katherine Dering has written two memoirs
that deal with trauma: a prose book,
Shot in the Head, a Sister's Memoir, a Brother's Struggle,
and a poetry book, Aftermath.
She began her writing journey with a story about growing up in a traditional Catholic family, leaving her religion, and going into a business career. But she couldn't finish it. She kept adding chapters about caring for her mentally ill brother, Paul, until she finally decided to write about taking care of Paul as a book on its own.
"From the time I decided to write Shot in the Head," Katherine says, "until I sent it to a publisher covered about 18 months. It was published about five months later." Finding that focus of her brother's story was almost a high. "I wrote day and night. I cut, pasted, borrowed, cried, and it all came together, as if someone else was writing it and I was just the transcriber. I asked my siblings to review sections they appeared in and we had friendly, supportive conversations that I used to eventually produce a book they all loved. And since I am one of ten children, that is saying a lot."
The hardest part
about writing this trauma story was revisiting the difficult moments, and acknowledging to herself that she could have done more to help him. "I cried. I felt guilty," she says. "He was so ill, so scary." Her brother had acute, treatment-resistant schizophrenia. "I never really thought through how dire a position he was in - suffering from acute, treatment resistant schizophrenia, unable to distinguish between reality and his delusions. As I cared for him he became more of a person, and I was at least glad that I finally got to know him before the end."
Shot in the Head was published in 2014 by the small press, Bridgeross.
But that wasn't Katherine's only trauma memoir. After her teenaged nephew died of a heroin overdose, through the death of her daughter-in-law's mother from incurable, progressive lung disorder, and the passing, a few months later, of a good friend from pancreatic cancer, Katherine wrote poetry. "It seemed like the losses were piling up, and all I could do, writing wise, was write a poem now and then. Only after another year had passed did I perceive that a compilation of my poems told a story." Aftermath, her poetry memoir, was the result. It was published by Finishing Line Press in 2018.
After each book was published, Katherine did readings and author signings. "Every time I read a few chapters or spoke about my family's encounter with schizophrenia, with my poor brother's mental prison, with his poor health care and death, or with all the losses from the three deaths, I cried again. It was like picking at a scab that kept bleeding and wouldn't heal."
Only in the last year or so, as she's moved on to other stories, has she felt the story of her brother really begun to heal.
If someone is swept up in a difficult situation, she says, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. Writing about it may help it come into focus.
But jump in
, she encourages writers. "See what you can do. If it is too difficult, set it to one side and do something else for a while, then go back to it. Sometimes, as happened to me, an avenue for approaching the story will come to you and because of all the donkey work you did to gather facts and setting, you will be able to put together a finished whole that feels authentic.
Katherine's memoir in prose, Shot in the Head, is available on amazon and her memoir in poetry, Aftermath, are available from Finishing Line Press and will be on amazon in January.
Judie Mattison, who recently published her memoir, I Will Not Break, says that she took eight years to write her story. She wrote in stages. "At first," she told me, "I thought I wanted to create a novel around my basic story. I was afraid of reactions to the truth, and it was interesting to create possible fictional scenes that fit the situations. But as an experiment, I took one scene and put it into first person. When I decided to write first person, everything went more smoothly. It was real and the memories were accessible. It was me - my story."
Judie also says her own self-doubt about being a writer slowed her down. She studied different writing-craft skills and "gradually things fell into place," she says. Her best help was a small writers' group of four who encouraged Judie and over time she began to reveal the true story to them. There was a point, Judie says, when the group decided on less critique and more affirmation, just to be able to continue writing their stories.
Throughout the process she read memoirs of all kinds. That helped too.
"But I did find times," she says, "when I felt simultaneously driven to tell the story and reluctant to continue. I went to a counselor for a few months and that support kept me on target with writing this memoir." She feels it's important that people understand and believe the writer when he or she begins to risk telling the true story. "The telling is essential," Judie says. "It frees the storyteller whether or not it ever becomes public."
But that telling can be exhausting too. "There were times when, after relating an experience, I was worn out," Judie says. She had to rest before she tackled another part of the book. It also helped her to write about her internal quest, using these questions: "What am I afraid to write about and why?" "Am I being too hard on myself?" To remind herself that it was alright to rest and take care of herself.
"Trauma is often misunderstood," Judie says, "and far more powerful than we realize. It is common to "forget" details of what happened. Often it involves feelings of shame and low self-esteem or recurrent fear. From time to time I would want to give up so that I didn't have to face misunderstandings or possible embarrassment for other people in the book. I was afraid of the reactions of outsiders."
However, she adds, if we have a trauma to write about, just putting it into words on paper is a way of feeling in control of the event(s).
Judie's book was published in 2018 by New Sun Press and is available on
Facing Writer's Block: Words of Wisdom from George Saunders
Some writers don't believe in writer's block--that stall out, mind- and spirit-numbing experience that occasionally visits us when we're plowing ahead on a book deadline or trying to bring a new character to life. But I do. I've had it, I've coached dozens of writers through it, and it's a real phenomenon.
Recently, I read a wonderful interview in Lit Hub on the writer George Saunders. You might be a great fan of Saunders, as I am (his collection of stories, Tenth of December, is some of the quirkiest, most amazing writing I've ever read), or his fiction might be new to you. His opinion about writer's block is equally inspiring. It's a bar set too high, he says. It's about the writer, not the writing. Always.
Ira Glass, the well-known host and producer of "This American Life," speaks of it as the distance between our taste and our abilities
|Ira Glass on the Creative Process (www.getoutthebox.org)
We know what we love, we want to create something close to that, and when we can't quite--from lack of experience, skill, or perspective--we get stuck. The only difference between the writer's block experienced by someone new to writing and someone who's published is perhaps the gap is less. Or the bar is higher.
I often experience writer's block when I take risks in my writing. When it opens up something vulnerable and my inner critic, that beautiful and irritating gatekeeper that all of us live with, gets anxious. I can see this process in my clients and students more quickly than in myself. A good teacher once told me to switch things out whenever that happens.
This week, I was drafting a new scene from my current novel-in-progress and I ran out of ideas. I kept pushing. That's my nature. The door refused to open. I had a choice: abandon the writing or switch to a different scene. I switched. It worked. An hour went by, I got my momentum back, and ideas started coming for that first scene. When I switched back, it was there.
If you're experiencing that sluggish, weighty, distracted feeling; if the holiday food hangover has taken you far from your writing, check out the Lit Hub interview with George Saunders (if the link doesn't work, go to lithub.org and search for Saunders), view the encouraging Ira Glass comments, above. Or watch the
Saunders video below.
|George Saunders - On Story
Slow Writing: The Pros and Cons of Writing by Hand
A reader sent me this link, a brief article by award-winning writer Annie Proulx on her five rules for good writing. Even if you don't agree, the website (Writer's Write) is worth a visit. But I like Proulx's work and I read her counsel, hoping for some inspiration for my current project. It's always helpful to look into a respected writer's progress.
Of her five rules, two were about writing by hand.
That surprised me--yet it didn't. There's a slow movement in writing, as in art and the food world and elsewhere, our attempt to counteract the panicked pace we live right now. A search for sanity and balance.
Notebook and pen foster a different kind of writing, for me at least. Since I "grew up" as a writer on Natalie Goldberg's freewrites (Writing Down the Bones) and Pam Painter's exercises (What If?), I'm not a stranger to slow writing. There's a logic to it. The movement of the hand calms the vagus nerve, according to certain brain research I've read. Our fright/flight/fight response settles down which maybe allows freer access to the more random part of our creativity. Although slow writing might not foster linear activities, such as plotting and outlining, it works quite well with storyboarding, my favorite non-linear organization technique.
I teach a whole retreat on storyboarding, but a few years ago I also offered an evening freewriting session after our storyboarding afternoon. At my annual week-long writing retreats (January 14-18 in Tucson, March 24-29 in Santa Fe, July 22-26 on Madeline Island), we gather on Tuesday evening and let creativity surge up. I present six prompts; we write for 10 minutes on each. It's slow but it fosters amazing ideas. Some prompts lead to another: "Imagine one of your characters. Write about this character's hands" merging into "Now see something in those hands. Describe it."
One year I added a third step: "Imagine the character trying to hide the object." That generated very interesting scenes!
On my laptop, I freewrite quickly, but I also notice more attention to the way the words look, sound, fall on the page. My editing brain engages, maybe just from the neurology of typing versus handwriting. Writing by hand disengages that editor inside, to some extent. It feels frustrating, like watching a movie from the eighties (have you rented or downloaded one lately? know what I mean?), but slowness has its benefits. After my fast-moving linear self finally relaxes, I go in unexpected directions.
For your weekly writing exercise, set a timer and try the freewrite above for 10-20 minutes. Do it first by hand, then on your computer. I'm guessing the freewrites will emerge differently. Which do you like better? And once you're done, check out Annie Proulx's article to read more of why a pro recommends going slow.
(If you have trouble with the link above, go to writerswrite.co.za and search for Annie Proulx.)
Writing about People You Know: Do You Need to Get Permission?
A reader from Connecticut is finishing up her new novel this month, getting ready to send it out to agents. She sent me a good question that often plagues writers right before their work goes out into the world.
I believe it was Barbara Kingsolver who said she sends her finished manuscripts to family for final approval," this writer wrote. "If there's anything there that offends them she takes it out. Since there are a few true intimate details in my novel that helped develop my fictionalized characters who were originally based on real people, I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on that."
Any writer who bases fictional characters on real people (as most of us do, to some extent) or writes about real places and eras runs the risk of offending readers by inaccuracy or similarity. A common joke among novelists is friends and family scouring their books to see where they appear.
But this reader's question addresses more than just offending those you know and love (or not). There's also a legal ramification, and although I'm far from versed in this, legal counsel at my publishers have always suggested a disclaimer added to the copyright page: "Any resemblance to real locations or real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." That's pretty standard.
When my novel,
Qualities of Light, was published, and because it did refer to real locations, I added this line: "Although some of the Adirondack towns and communities in this story are loosely based on real places I have lived in and loved, I changed significant details to make them fictional." That covered it, as far as I was concerned. I did worry, slightly, about one character and very small-town location that closely resembled a real person and a real bar, but I changed as much as I could, just keeping the flavor of the place and making the real person, not well liked, someone sympathetic. I figured that would erase any resemblance.
One of my nonfiction books,
How to Master Change in Your Life, is a hybrid self-help/memoir. I included a handful of stories from friends and colleagues about ways to handle different kinds of change. Although my story predominated, I made sure to get written permission from each example I used that wasn't mine. Again, the publisher helped; we drafted a simple release form that included the edited story and had each person sign it. Only one came back later to complain, and I thought seriously about removing her story from the next edition. Legally, I was covered, but personally, I wanted to honor her concern. We talked it out and the story remained in the book. But I was glad I had done my homework ahead of time.
Fiction writers feel they are immune, but what if their readers do recognize themselves and the relationship is harmed? Here's a group of great resources for you to browse this week, if this is one of your concerns. If the links don't work, just go to the publication's home page and search for the article title.
When One of Your Characters Is an Institution: Writing about Racism, Politics, and Other Large Subjects
Tom is writing a novel about a fellow physician, but one of another race who lived in a time of great political and personal challenge. He attended my weeklong retreat last January in Tucson and we worked together on building the storyboard for his book. He has plenty of events to make the book tense and full of action (lynchings, KKK threats, and more), but one of his biggest concerns has nothing to do with any of the outer story. He sent me a great question this week about racism and how to depict it in his story.
"In my novel," he writes, "Dr. Alonzo Clifton McClennan is the protagonist. But I think of the antagonist as not a person, but an institution: the racism, the anti-abolitionists, the Old South itself.
If the antagonist is not a person, but an approach to life, how do I go about portraying that character arc?"
He agrees that he can represent the institution by the KKK's grand wizard and his company of night-riders who threaten Dr. McClennan--a great scene I remember reading in Tucson showed the doctor being threatened on the road as he tried to minister to a man who'd been lynched.
But if these characters are only representatives of the bigger antagonist, the institution, how does Tom show any changes, any growth, that's part of most characters in a novel? Can he? Should he?
Tricky territory for writers, and even trickier for Tom, who straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction, since he's writing about a real person.
Usually, as a writer and writing teacher, my first advice is to humanize the antagonist away from stereotype. Rather than all-good and all-evil, find the true ground of everyone being a mix, more of one or the other. Each antagonist who comes into the story needs to be real to us, not just a representative of an evil institution such as slavery or the aftereffects of it. Tom is doing this quite successfully in how he depicts those who threaten Dr. McClennan's life each day--and his writing is stronger because of it. If a character is shown to be human, yet does an inhumane act, the effect is much more powerful for the reader and we believe the protagonist's suffering, even identify more with him. So that's the first step--take the greater institution and break it into bits, into people that live by its reality, and how they make sense of that in their lives. Not an easy task.
Especially not easy if the writer has a mission in the story: to prove something, to stand on a platform and remind the reader of it. What I call "platform writing" can creep in to anyone's work if the mission takes over the craft. If you, the writer, are more concerned about getting a message out than sharing a good tale.
Unlike nonfiction, which has a lot more liberty to stand on a platform and educate readers, fiction suffers from this. The reader expects to be drawn into a dream, and any sense of author intrusion ("are you paying attention to this message?") sweeps us out of the dream of the story. Instantly, and often irrevocably. We won't re-enter.
Tom's working hard to avoid this. He needs to trust that his characters will deliver the message via their actions, decisions, dialogue. But he also has to stay vigilant to avoid depicting any of them as a stereotype, because it's less effective emotionally, and the message and meaning of the story will suffer.
The best way to study up on this is to look at other books written about life in war zones, in different cultures battling for survival. So many master writers have gone before us, and reading their work closely can educate us on how to bring in "institutions" as characters. Toni Morrison's novels are an excellent first step that I'd suggest to Tom. How does she depict such a force in someone's life, and show a good person living in intensely beleaguered times?
The most successful antagonists, as you humanize them, will change in some way during the story. This seems almost impossible to imagine, when considering they represent the worst of humankind in institutions such as racism, Nazism, and the like. But skilled writers do this all the time. Consider the German soldier in Anthony Doerr's novel, All the Light We Cannot See, who "represents" the institution of Nazism. Doerr gives us a look inside this young man, so by the end, when he helps save the protagonist, we believe the change. That's an excellent character arc.
There's much less likelihood of an "institution" changing enough in fiction to have a character arc, but those stories don't revolve around institutions as much as characters. And characters do change.
If yours don't, find a mentor in one the authors cited above. See how you might humanize even the ones you personally can't abide.
Famous Writers' Favorite Tips
I'm just back from a marathon teaching trip so this week's post will be short and sweet: a
from the newsletter,
on famous writers' favorite writing tips, compiled by The Guardian. (Thanks to reader Mary K. for the link.) Enjoy!
(If the link doesn't work, go to
and search for Jeanette Winterson.)
Exploring Theme in Your Story: How Wounding Event and False Beliefs Intersect with Theme
Theme answers the question: So what? That's pretty harsh, but it's what readers need to know soon after they pick up your book. Theme is the meaning and the message, the purpose of your story. Not just entertainment, although that is usually part of good writing. But we look for meaning now, in our literature and in our lives, more than ever. Publishers know this, agents know this, readers crave this.
Nonfiction writers can tell us the theme, or meaning, of their books. They can stand on a platform and present the message quite frankly. If you do that in fiction or most memoir, you alienate readers. Characters and narrator can rarely be on platform and still keep readers involved in the story. So theme is trickier for those genres.
First, you have to figure out what the story is about. What are you trying to say? Is it as simple as "love hurts, but you survive?" A friend told me she wants her novel to be about powerful women changing a place. As I work on my new novel, I'm discovering its meaning goes beyond what I expected when I first wrote up my synopsis. It evolves as I get to know the characters. Particularly, their wounding events and the false beliefs that stem from those.
More and more, as I research these two aspects of story-telling, I'm convinced that theme emerges most organically from them.
Once you discover what grows organically, you can shape it and enhance it.
I'm researching new material for my upcoming online class on theme and voice, which begins next week, and playing with exercises to explore these two aspects of theme. For instance, how might a trauma or loss or big change in a character or narrator's childhood create a certain belief about life? It's not a true belief, because it comes from the effect of something that happened to them before they could clearly understand the meaning. Say the character's father left when he was young. A certain belief about families, about fathers, about himself, might emerge from that. It's the perspective of a child, not the more holistic view he might gain as an adult, looking back. Say the nugget of that perspective manifests in his life as certain attitudes, avoidances, decisions. Those bring more events, more effects from their causation, and you have a cycle that creates story.
So we have a good story driver in these two elements of wounding event and false belief. But how does that lead to meaning, or theme?
It's pretty simple, as I've been discovering. In most well-structured stories, there will be chances for the character to face his false beliefs and rework them. Maybe he starts to understand why his dad left, and that it had nothing to do with him. Perhaps this changes, ever so slightly, his own tendency to jump ship. I'm being very basic here, psychology 101, but you get the idea. The theme or meaning comes when we look at the character's trajectory and ask: What did he learn? How has he changed? Maybe the theme of this imaginary book might be how compassion develops. I'm just guessing here, but that's the process I've been working with, for my own writing, and the ideas I'm setting in place for my upcoming class.
I've worked on this concept of false beliefs for several years with writers at my weeklong writing retreats and watched them be able to organize and make sense of their book structure for the first time. Add in the concept of wounding events, which birth these false beliefs, and you have seriously important backstory to weave in, that makes sense of the false beliefs as they affect the story in present time. Combine them all together, and you begin to see the purpose of the book. The answer to So what?
Join me, if this intrigues you, for my newly remodeled online class that starts next Wednesday. Here's
for more details. It's a great place to show up with your book-in-progress and ask these kinds of deep questions. And answer the So what? question for yourself, before your reader/agent/publisher has to.
Online Classes and How They Help with Feedback
I haven't always been a fan of online learning--for many years, I liked the face-to-face best, especially when it came to feedback on my writing. But in the past ten years I've grown very fond of online classes and how they actually enhance writers' ability to give and receive feedback. I regularly take them for motivation, accountability, and the helpful responses I get for my work-in-progress.
I think there's a great use for them, in the journey of a book, and that's often in the generative and early revision stages. I don't find as much help when I'm closer to final revision, because seeing only parts of a manuscript is less helpful then.
But right now, when I am beginning another book, I'm taking them with great enjoyment and benefit. Here are some of the plusses I've found in online writing classes:
1. If you have a skilled, high-participation instructor, the discussions are very lively. I've been in classes where the instructor is absentee, and those create deadly quiet on the forums, but classes with an instructor who drops in at least two or three times a week, comments on a lot of posts, and shares additional tips and ideas is hugely helpful. There's a sense of being one-to-one with the teacher and being able to ask questions all week, which is something you don't get with in-person classes. Additionally, you often get links to articles, videos, and books that will carry on being useful even after class.
2. You get to interact with a very diverse group of writers. Online classes draw from all over--often international. In a class I'm taking now, a student from Paris is adding unique flavor to the discussion and ideas. We usually get a wide mix of cultural backgrounds too, and this gives us each a broader view of our work for potential readers.
3. Discussion doesn't end when class meetings end each week. We carry on constantly--writers add comments in the evenings, on weekends, whenever they get online. It's a 24/7 delight, which you can control.
4. It fits busy schedules and winter, when I don't really want to go anywhere to attend class (sorry to say, but New England winters can do that to a person). I usually log on after my work day is over or if I'm writing and need a burst of inspiration.
5. Feedback, if well monitored by a skilled, caring instructor, can go more in depth than in-person feedback, I've found. Writers can ask questions of their readers after getting feedback, to clarify or expand the comments.
6. As an instructor, I've found more consistent progress in online classes. I've taught both in-person weekly classes and online weekly classes for many years. More of my online students have gone on to finish their books, get agents, and publish. It's thrilling to witness, and I believe the online format encourages steady work.
How do you choose an online class? My personal choices, when I attend classes, are based on two criteria: how involved is the instructor and how relevant is the material.
I check out the instructor mostly by word-of-mouth. Incredible writing credentials do not make incredible teachers--I've learned that the hard way after studying with four or five writers I admired for years. Most of them barely showed up. One, who will remain nameless here, started our class a week late and never communicated why (we students felt stranded and the school wasn't much help). Another gave cursory feedback, as if he had more important things to do (he probably did, but why agree to teach if so?). I don't go for the big names as much anymore, unless I hear great things from their past students. Most reputable schools offer some kind of testimonials from past students, or you can go online and google the teacher, see what their websites say or other discussions about them (interviews, etc.). It's a big of a crap shoot but word-of-mouth can make it less so.
The class material needs to apply to where I am with my writing. If I'm in a generative stage (early drafting), I don't want heavy feedback yet. So I check out whether the description says "generative" and if the teacher encourages feedback that encourages and asks questions. Or I might go for an exercise-driven class that mostly asks writers to keep writing and gives plenty of new ideas. When I get ready for more intensive critique, I look for "workshopping" classes that offer it. If I'm trying to refine an aspect of my writing, such as characters or theme and voice, I need exposure to new ideas, new skills, and a place to practice them. Classes that offer specific skills and topics are best at that stage.
If you go for online learning, it's helpful to set reminders in your calendar. Either opt in to the notifications by email, so you get a daily digest of posts from other students and the nudge to participate. Or make a habit of checking the classroom each evening--I do this now instead of checking Facebook and it makes me MUCH happier, for many reasons. I also set myself calendar deadlines for writing that's due for my class and try to meet those religiously to get my time and money's worth.
As an online teacher, I love to witness the magic that happens in a class, if conditions are right. I know I need to participate a lot, especially in the first weeks, to get the discussions going and create a safe environment for sharing honestly and constructively. I carefully monitor feedback to make sure safety and high benefit continue. Since I've taken classes myself, I know what it feels like to risk one's writing among strangers, and I feel strongly about the teacher's responsibility to make this work for everyone.
As winter closes in, I'm already lining up my classes--to take and to teach. My writing's eager, and so am I.
PS This month, starting October 24, I'm teaching updated versions of two of my favorite online classes. Updated means I've changed things up, added new ideas and exercises and links and cool stuff to freshen the classroom and offer different approaches. Story-in-Progress is a totally fun and productive eight-week online class that skill-builds but also gives helpful feedback; writers are asked to post certain key sections of their book manuscripts for my feedback as well as their classmates. Along with this, each week we discuss how that section of a book is built, looking at examples from published writing and articles by famous writers. My other fall online class, The Art of Theme and Voice, is for those who are at the stage where they want to bring more authenticity into their writing and generate the threads of theme throughout. We look at samples of published writing that does this magnificently and our discussions are always lively. Feedback is constructive and generous. If interested, click on the above titles or go to www.loft.org classes and search for my name.
To Storyboard or Not to Storyboard: How This Cool Planning Tool Compares to Outlines, Charts, and Maps
I'm working on my third novel, my fifteenth book, and I'm approaching it as many writers do: from nowhere! It's an exploratory process, and I don't really know what the book will be about. I have a good idea, a handful of characters I already love (and hate), and a kind of plot. But I do have my storyboard, and that's gotten me a lot further along than I would be without it.
You've probably heard of the plotter versus pantser continuum in writing. Plotters like to know where they are going, in every degree, before they begin. Pantsers are the opposite--they feel their way along, following the nudges and ideas that come as they generate writing. I fall somewhere in the middle. I don't think I would've gotten thirteen books published, fourteen written, without some planning. But I also know I gained a tremendous amount by letting the muse direct some of my steps as I went forward.
I recently experimented with being a total plotter. I signed up for an eight-week online class that only taught planning. Writers came in with ideas, rough drafts, revisions of novels and we all stepped back to step one: writing a synopsis, chapter summary, character backstory, etc. I found it exhilarating and very difficult. So much I didn't know, it seemed idiotic to try to outline at this stage. I am more like novelist
who can't approach an outline until she's completed a rough draft. But I did have my storyboard set up, so I had a very sketchy map, and it got me through the eight weeks. Surprisingly, because of that storyboard, I was able to complete a pretty solid outline by the end of the class. Without it, I would've floundered.
One reason I love storyboards is that they are a very right-brain planning tool. You don't work linearly. You choose key events: the beginning idea you have that might launch the story, the possible ending, a midpoint (also called an emotional midpoint) where the story takes on a new twist, and two turning points where the slate is wiped clean to some degree. You begin with these and they can be rough. If I'm writing a two-narrator story, I create two storyboards. If I'm working on a nonfiction book, I take my ideal reader along the storyboard path, charting my information delivery accordingly. If it's a memoir, and I'm the only one telling the story, it's my five points that I brainstorm.
Storyboards are a completely flexible brainstorming tool. But as I reconfirmed for myself, during this planning class I took, they nudge the writer towards structure in an almost organic way.
Later, as Mirvis says in her article above (if you can't get the link, go to grubstreet.org's blog and search for her name), you can use outlines, charts, and all the wonderful tools that planners love. But in the beginning, and all the way through that first terrible draft, it's essential to find the balance between the plotter and pantser that fits for you. How much of each depends on how you're wired creatively.
Because I find storyboards help so many writers find that balance that works for them, I like to teach it as often as I can. I'll be offering a one-day workshop on to take you through the process, whether this is your first book or your fifteenth, at the Loft in Minneapolis on Friday, October 26. Click
for information. I'll also be offering an online version of this workshop in the spring, and I'll share details in future blog posts. I'd love to have you join me for either or both, and help you get closer to your perfect plotter/pantser balance.
Editor Beth Wright on How She Helps Indie Authors Win Awards
A few weeks ago, a former student, memoir-writer Mary Knutson, sent me an exciting email: "
I can now put 'award winner' in my bio!"
On publication of her indie release, Mary's editor had suggested four book awards to consider and the first announced its winners August 2. As Mary scrolled down to see who had been chosen, there was her book! She'd entered in three categories and won a Gold Winner Award in the Inspirational Human Relations category for the 2018 Human Relations Indie Book Awards. She also won Silver Awards in the two other categories. "So now I have three beautiful certificates to frame," she told me.
Winning an award for your creative efforts is a goal many writers dream of but few know how to attain. It's not rocket science, but it does take a certain persistence and know-how to find the right venues, choose the best categories, and submit your work.
This week, I'm interviewing Beth Wright, of Wright for Writers, the Twin Cities-based editor who has helped Mary Knutson and other indie writers choose and submit to contests.
Beth began working as
a writing coach, editor, and publishing consultant after twenty years in book publishing, from small press to co-owning a book production and publishing consulting company.
She feels strongly that all serious indie authors deserve good professional services so their books compete in quality with titles coming from major traditional publishing houses. And part of that process may be contests and awards.
I asked Beth how she helps writers find suitable contests and awards to compete for. She says there are some key factors to consider:
- the writer's budget: since award contests charge fees to enter (typically $50-$100 per category) and require entrants to provide copies of the book (sometimes you can submit e-book files) a writer has to decide how much she or he is going to shell out for this
- what level of competitiveness the writer wants to go for: some awards are very high-profile (like state or national book awards), where the chance of winning might be fairly low, although the prestige factor for winning is high; other awards have less competition and might be easier
- the genres/subject categories within a contest: broad categories in an award contest mean more competition; narrow categories can mean a better chance of winning (and certain specialty awards offer the best chances for particular books, such as those with LGBT content, environmental subjects, literary genres, for example)
- the award history: it's useful to scan the lists of awards from the past few years to get a sense of the competition in terms of publishers and titles, the specific focus of the award in terms of subjects or approaches, and the best match for the author's book
Beth helps authors study all these factors first, so chances of placing or winning are higher.
I asked about the specifics of finding awards and contests and how a writer decides what to submit and where.
Beth says, "In addition to general online searches, some useful sources for book awards are Poets & Writers magazine, the Loft Literary Center's website, and websites and blogs for and about writers, such as this one from a book publicist, and the Book Designer website, which focuses on self-publishing authors."
Beth feels that if the book is traditionally published, the publisher should pay the submission fees. Mostly, that's been my experience but I did find some publishers won't do this--it depends on your place on their "list" and how much they've budgeted for your book promotion. But you can always negotiate or pay yourself.
It's all about choosing how to weigh competitiveness and profile. An author might choose to submit their book to a very narrow category that gives them a better chance at winning in one contest and perhaps take a bigger risk as well by submitting to a high-profile competition, Beth says.
Beth advises authors to read submission guidelines carefully. Be sure to look at the award's history (the lists of award winners from the last few years) to get a sense of how their book might fit in. Compare to previous award winners in the categories they're considering.
Over the years, many of Beth's indie author clients have won book awards, ranging from Indie Excellence to the Midwest Book Awards. And for those who win, Beth coaches them on how to use the award to promote the book. "Make sure to use 'award-winning book' or 'award-winning author' in your publicity and marketing materials," she says, "to get your book more notice." She feels it's worthwhile to get the stickers that most contests offer (sometimes for a fee) for authors to put on their book covers. "If they're trying to get a bookstore to carry their book," Beth adds, "that little foil medallion might catch the eye of the store manager and help convince them to say yes."
But Beth believes awards are just one small piece of the marketing pie. To give your book the best chance of sales, it's good to create a comprehensive marketing plan (with or without help) as early in the publishing process as possible and also be open to adjusting it as you go. True for authors with either traditionally published or self-published books, and whether they have robust marketing support from a publisher or they're on their own: "Authors should do enough market research to understand their reader demographics," Beth says, "their most likely competition, and their best channels for sales."
Her goal: Authors able to talk and/or write about their book confidently to potential readers and any gatekeepers like bookstore staff or reviewers.
"Authors need to have patience and stamina," she says. "It's a long-term process to develop a profile for a book and create publicity and sales momentum. Identifying their book's strengths, their key audiences, and their own resources will help their chances of success."
For more information on Beth's services, contact her at
bethwright [ at ] centurylink [ dot ] net or visit her on linkedin.
Beta Readers--Who Are They, How Do They Help Your Book, How to Find Them
Linda is closing in on the finish line with her memoir and sent a great question this week: "I'd like to hear what you have to say about beta readers, particularly if it's a good idea to find complete strangers or folks I've already worked with (such as from online classes). Who makes good beta readers?"
I first heard the term "beta readers" at a writing conference many years ago. Just like beta testers for software, beta readers are an important part of the book writing process before you "release" your product into the world, either through indie or traditional (agented or small press) publishing.
Writers usually need four to seven beta readers, on average. You may ask friends, family, or colleagues, or you may go for fellow writers, with whom you can someday return the favor. You're asking them to read your manuscript draft, when it's really, really ready. When you've done as much as you possibly can for it and need some readers to sample it from beginning to end.
This is vastly different from a writers group who exchanges chapters or sections. Beta readers read the whole thing. They spend time on it, they respond to your questions carefully, they hopefully catch any big confusions before you open your manuscript to a wider audience (agent, press, publisher).
I plan for beta reader time after final revision. Depending on the timeline, I plan 6-8 weeks for responses. I give them my careful list of questions. After they finish, I thank them profusely. I send a thank-you gift.
I make sure my work is ready. I don't wear my readers out with half-done work, partial manuscripts, ideas. That's for my writing partners or writers group. I respect the time a beta reader will put it, and I realize I may not get another read from that particular person.
They have saved me, many times.
No matter how careful you are, as a writer, and no matter how vast your publishing experience, you can't catch everything. You may be blind to certain things in your manuscript--like unconscious plot repetitions or characters that disappear midbook.
How do you find and make agreements with beta readers?
1. Look for fellow writers, first. Many writers take classes, online or in person, to create a writing community. Join writers groups. Find writing partners. Test out how other writers in a class respond with feedback, for instance, and take note of ones who do a good job, in your opinion--encouraging but offering great ideas and questions, for instance.
2. Cultivate your beta readers list over a few years. When classes end, message the writer you liked: Would you ever be interested in exchanging work? You're not ready yet, but you keep in touch.
3. When you're getting close, contact your list. Try for five to seven beta readers. That'll give you a wide range of comments and feedback. Two or three can be too few; ten is too many (you'll be flooded, possibly overwhelmed).
4. Give them your timeline. Ask how they'd like to receive the manuscript (electronically, as a pdf or Word doc, printed). Ask how they'll return it to you (with inline comments such as Word's tracking feature or margin notes or an overview). They get to choose this, generally. Not everyone has time or interest to do Word tracking. Be grateful for what they offer, but be clear about it upfront.
5. Compile a list of questions. What do you most want to hear? Be specific. It's helpful to go beyond question like, What did you love? or What didn't work for you? These are too broad for most non-professional readers and they may deliver less useful feedback. I like to spend a few weeks jotting down all the questions I can think of then choose the top seven to ten. One of the most useful is: Where did you stumble or get distracted or put down the manuscript to take a break? Knowing this has meant a lot to me, in my books. That's a key place to study and repair, if needed. You can certainly ask specific questions about plot points (Did you believe that XX would happen?) or characters (XX is my antagonist and I want to be sure he's understandable, even if he's not likeable--what did you think?)
6. Deliver, wait, prepare your thank you's.
As the feedback comes in, you may feel overly excited or just plain overwhelmed. It's not unusual to also feel discouraged, even depressed. So set up a system ahead of time, to detach yourself from the emotional side of beta reading, as best you can. I like to print the feedback out, put it in a folder, and not read it deeply until all of it comes in. I acknowledge receipt, send a thank you, but set it aside. It's hard to do this, especially if it's your first time. But often one person's strong negative comments are cancelled out by another beta reader who absolutely loved that part. Not reacting saves you the whiplash of this very normal phenomenon.
When you get everything in, start a list. Write down every single suggestion that makes sense to you, from big to small, in no particular order. Then add the ones that seem completely off. Don't ignore those--sometimes they settle in and make sense later. Print it all out. Give yourself some time (I take a week) then read through.
Look for the opposing views and consider if they cancel each other out. Also look for more than one person commenting on the same issue--these are very important to pay attention to.
To wrap up, I want to share a short list about what beta readers are, and what they are not. Hopefully, it'll be helpful as you move forward on your book-writing journey.
Beta readers are:
* Good readers, foremost. They love books.
* Read the genre you're writing in. A big mistake I once made was to ask a friend who didn't read novels to read mine. Never again.
* Ideally, are writers or have some connection to writing (editor, etc.).
* Timely. You can depend on them to deliver a response within your timeline.
* Fair-minded. They encourage as well as critique. You come away with a sense of possibility, not just a list of everything you did wrong.
* Able to see the overview, not just correct typos (see below).
* Strangers are fine to ask. It's kind of like Goodreads for drafts; there's a risk there, so be sure you have the belief in your book to carry on, if they give you a bad review.
Beta readers are not:
* Ideally, not people who love you unconditionally (family, close friends). They may either give you less useful advice ("It's all wonderful") or be too nit-picky in their nervousness to do a good job for you.
* Proofreaders. I once had a beta reader who spent hours on my first chapter making grammatical corrections. Many of which were wrong. Make sure they know you're not asking them to catch typos or make grammar or spelling corrections. You honestly need more from them, than final-stage correcting--you need big-picture stuff. I know it might seem tempting to ask for this, or say yes if they offer, but it'll take them away from the overview comments you need.
* Casual about the process. They want to honor what you've worked so hard to achieve, with this manuscript.
Enjoy the process. Be grateful to these unpaid readers. Keep going with your book!
Readers Don't Care Who Publishes Your Book--Really!
One of my private amusements is the serendipity surrounding how well my different books sell, or not. And how that really doesn't align with who published them. A writing friend was bemoaning this with me, feeling bad about her small press status versus a Big Five publisher. But her book has sold well, very well. While other writers I know, published by a top echelon press, sell fewer copies.
When I recently came across this article from Grub Street's blog, interviewing debut writers about the post-signing process (what happens once you do get an agent and a publisher), it confirmed my long-held belief that readers really don't care who your publisher is.
Read the article here, to find out more about the surprises that await once you have "made it." (If the link doesn't work, go to www.grubstreet.org/blog and search for "The Eight Most Surprising Things."
I'm amused by this because we writers are SO involved with who published what. The bigger the press, the bigger the name, the more we've arrived. Yes, to a certain extent, the bigger publishers have the potential for more sales, better reviews--but only if you are high on their list and get the required attention from their sales department. Big Five publishers release a large clutch of books each season, so salespeople often select a few titles to promote to booksellers. Yours may not be one.
Why do you think agents want to know about your platform? Because it tells them how much you'll be involving in selling your book, through social media, Goodreads, newsletters or blogs, blurbs and reviews. The publisher may help, or may not, depending on your book's placement on that list.
My friend's small press (and my own experience with small presses confirms this) actually gave her more attention than many big publishers would, and her sales, combined with her own efforts, reflected this.
The Grub Street blog article talked about how these debut writers were pretty surprised that none of their readers ever asked "Who is publishing your book?"
I've published thirteen books in my writing career, three via agented submissions to major presses, nine to small presses sans agent, and one self-published. One of the small press submissions was a bestseller for the press because my editor put it up for a national award and it won third place (the sales and award landed me a second contract, but I can't say this was more than sheer beginner's luck--I didn't know enough back then to market my own books effectively). Another small press, non-agented, book became a bestseller via word-of-mouth. One of the three agented submissions landed on that year's top list for its publisher and sold a gajillion copies, so I got a couple more books via that publisher and royalties for ten years. The other bestseller of the group was my self-published book, which has only succeeded from my own efforts and that of my readers.
Nobody, except my writing friends, has ever asked who published any one of these books. None of my readers ever asked if it sold well or poorly. They just want a good book.
I realize the argument is not as simple as I've presented here, but consider this: where and with whom you publish, be it a Big Five house or your own, is nowhere near as important as how well your book is written. Writers get so twisted about this. Maybe it would be a relief to read the Grub Street article this week and reassure yourself?
How Much Research Is Really Enough? Building Worlds, Bringing Back Worlds
A writer from Minneapolis recently sent me a good question about research. He wondered how much and what kind of research a writer should do when writing historical novels. I've gotten the same question from writers working on fantasy or sci-fi novels. When is enough, enough? When do you stop researching and start writing? Or vice versa?
When you're world building, whether that world lives in past, in future, or entirely in imagination, you have to research. Aspects you'll need to know about include: physical setting details, landscape including the weather and seasons and how they affect the characters, maybe the history of the place you're setting the novel, clothing or garments, science or technology details, food, daily activities, transportation, maybe weapons, maybe medicines or other healing modalities, and much more. Building the world means welcoming your reader into it, and the world needs to be believable.
When I work on world building for my novels, I have a few fun research steps, which you may have also tried. My goal is to know enough to be able to choose certain salient details that will make the world authentic enough for the reader to fully enter.
I start a research folder either on my desktop or in the Scrivener file for the new novel. Then I gather. I browse websites that might have good articles or information; I copy and paste the links into my research folder. Sometimes, when I want to shuffle actual papers, I'll borrow library books or print out the articles I find. I allow myself a month of this before I begin writing, because I want to get the flavor of the place clearly in heart and head.
I also gather images. Those are often more useful at first, when I'm trying to visualize details like clothing and how someone would walk or move when wearing it; food and how it might be cooked or served; how the climate and landscape affects the characters. I often create an image board (collage) in my writing notebook for that project or in Scrivener (uploading images and saving them on that software is surprisingly easy).
There's a critical mass moment with research, though, and maybe you know what I'm talking about. It's all too easy to lost in the wonderful world of research and avoid the writing itself. After all, research does not a story make. So I give myself a week, at the beginning, to gather as much as I can and pour through it. Then I get to work.
During the drafting process, when I hit a hole in my research, I use the journalist's notation of TK ("to come"). I learned this as a newspaper writer. If the story is flowing but you need a quote just here or a piece of setting detail, you just write TK and come back to it later. A great trick--otherwise, it's way too easy to get derailed and never complete even one scene. This week's writing exercise is to think about your research and make a list of questions you'd like to research for your book-in-progress. What information still feels a little shaky in your mind? What details need to be authenticated?
And if you're a research lover, honestly evaluate your percentages. How much time do you spend researching and how much actually writing? Could you try the TK trick to keep yourself moving forward and not get derailed this week?
Wounding Event--The Backstory That Drives Your Narrator
A short post this week: I'm just returning from teaching at a writing retreat and wanted to share
Fiction Writers Review
by Michelle Hoover, on the wounding event, a pivotal moment of backstory that drives much of the internal quest of your narrator. If you have trouble accessing the link, go to
and search for "wounding event."
Equally applicable to memoir writers as well as fiction writers, it helps make sense of why the people in your story do what they do.
Your writing exercise this week is to check out the article then freewrite about possible wounding events in your narrator's backstory. What's the haunting memory that drives them, almost unconsciously, in every decision and choice?
Unlearning How to Write Your Book--What You Need to Forget You Knew
In May, at Grub Street's annual writing conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, I sat in on a lively workshop taught by writer Steve Almond. If you've heard of
"Dear Sugar," you'll know Steve (and his co-writer, Cheryl Strayed). His workshop was about stuff we know that we need to unlearn. Forget. Let go of. Set aside. He focused specifically on a rule that's dear to many writers, "show, don't tell." Steve feels this is a crock and he's not mincing words to tell you why. We ran through examples from published authors who used telling skillfully--and some examples of showing that didn't make the mark at all.
Scene is showing (dialogue and action) and it has its place. But if you've been to writing classes or an MFA program in the past ten years, you've heard the rule about "show, don't tell." It started, I believe, for a good reason: new writers often tell their story and have to learn how to make it into scene so the reader can enter it fully. But to take a rule like that and apply it blindly, that's not useful.
Another such rule is no backstory. Read my post
about why writers need to unlearn that one. Again, it began to help beginning writers balance their narrative. But it's gotten carried too far.
One more example: we're taught in school that grammar matters. A lot. That sentence fragments (not the subject, verb sequence hammered into us as kids) were bad. That ending a sentence with a preposition would strike horror in the hearts of our readers. When you take on a book, grammar still matters, but the story matters more. I work with many writers who have to unlearn their rigidity about "proper" English. A great exercise is to check out the discussion in style books, used by journalists, such as
The Chicago Manual of Style, and see their viewpoint on language and writing, and how both have to shift with the times. Because language lives, and changes, and the rules we learned in school often don't keep up.
The point of all this: Succeeding with a creative project, like a book, requires unlearning
some of what you've learned. Not everything, but stuff that no longer serves you. You have to be open to new ideas, new skills, new rules, even.
I subscribe to an occasional newsletter from Derek Sivers, the creator of CD Baby and other avenues for artists. I enjoyed a recent post about unlearning, and it became the basis for our writing exercise for this week. Read it
(or if the link doesn't work, go to
and search for "unlearning").
I find it helpful--even freeing--to take inventory of what I've had to unlearn or re-learn in the past year. The list might include a few items like these:
1. My belief that novels have to have motivated characters to get published (scroll down for my diatribe on
Chemistry, a novel that doesn't). I may not personally engage with them but evidently many people do.
2. How long it
really takes to revise. And how to be patient with this endless process.
3. Backstory--use, placement, amount required. Totally revamped my attitude and my own writing.
If you want, try your own list after you read Sivers's article. It's illuminating. It might help get you unstuck, if you're stuck. It may even grant you a little self-compassion for the onerous process of growth as a writer. Or why Steve Almond made such fun of writers who stick blindly with the rules.
Next week, the blog will be on vacation as I teach my annual writing retreat on Madeline Island. If you miss this Friday discussion about writing, scroll down to some of the past week's posts that you've skipped over. See you again on August 10.
How Close Are You to Your 10,000 Hours? Viewing Writing as Practice
On our fridge we have a
New Yorker cartoon. A dog is sitting on a mountain ledge at the feet of his guru. The caption reads: "The bone is not the reward--digging for the bone is the reward." I keep it there to keep me humble. About my writing, and my 10,000 hours.
A past MISA student sent me a great article about this (thanks, Tom!). As a beginner so many times during my life--in writing, in playing a musical instrument, in kayaking, in painting--I know well the impatience we can have to have it all now. To be good enough immediately, to show unexpected genius, to land that incredible deal, because we have such innate skills. We want to not practice writing, we want to just be a great writer. Right?
Practice is the tedium, but practice is also the path. Ask anyone who has mastered a skill how many hours they've put in. Very few are gifted with it. They've dedicated the time and attention.
Your weekly writing exercise this week is to calculate your distance to those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell cites as being necessary for mastership at any skill.
shares Oprah's view of this theory. Interesting links throughout, if you want to click through. If the link doesn't work go to
and search for either name above.
Moving from Writer View to Reader View: Revision Steps to Make Your Book Stand Out
Books enter our lives in distinct stages.
First comes the wild idea. It grows gradually in the inner room of your creative self, until you can't ignore it. You have to get it down. This burst of energy propels you through an important starting gate--past ideas ruminating inside to ideas on the page. Maybe they're externalized for the first time, and they generate other ideas. You write for months, years, whatever it takes to shape your vision. This initial timeline is very individual: if it's your first book, you may need a lot of time to dream. Or, if it's been generating inside for years, it may come forth in a mad rush.
It's exciting, this idea to vision stage. And eventually, you have a draft. It's way rough (I love writer Anne Lamott's name for it: shitty first draft), but without it, you ain't got nothing, as they say. So you start here.
Next gateway is to figure out what the real story is, inside all the mess. You take the document on your laptop or pages piled onto your desk and rework, over and over. You get feedback, you rework some more. A lot of emotions come up. A lot of resistance, usually: hate, passionate love (how amazing! how unique!), and eventually some neutrality. I find this part can take two or three years, to locate the real book within the initial draft.
The key to this step is moving from writer view to reader view. A writer must--and I believe this so strongly, from working with thousands of writers--release their personal attachment to the story, and let it become what it is meant to be.
Readers will not care if it's your precious idea--they want it to relate to them, too. You might think of this step as moving from the personal to the universal. Finding what, in your personal vision or story, will speak to others and touch their lives too.
It takes a lot, for most writers. Some never manage it. They are too attached to what they originally saw. I say this from years of editing experience, working with publishers, helping writers cross this threshold. I say it with much compassion, because I have to do it too--and it's often a bitter medicine to swallow.
Essentially, you, the writer, must let go in order to see your story from a reader's eyes. You must absent your hovering presence and let that story speak for itself.
That's when you really can begin to revise.
, author of
The Half-Known World,
calls all our drafts to this point "transitional." I find this accurate--and true for all genres, including prescriptive nonfiction, which often works with outlines and talking points and much planning. Until we get past the transitions of refining the manuscript towards the universal view, the reader view, we're not ready for certain revision tasks.
Steps to Revision
I trained as an editor for eighteen years. Both as a freelancer for various publishers and a salaried manuscript editor for a small press in the Midwest, I worked with experienced pros who were steady, careful, and kind enough to instruct me. I learned there are indeed clear steps to take when polishing a manuscript. It's not a blind ride. Each editor has their own method, but many overlapped.
From my eighteen years, four main steps evolved. There are many more, but I'll share these with you today--maybe one will be helpful to your revision process.
Step One: Find a Workable Editing Method
When you've gotten to the reader view, you are ready to begin working on fine-tuning the manuscript. First, find a good editing method that fits you.
Decide if you're more comfortable editing by paper or on screen. It's really a matter of personal preference. I tend to work onscreen until the document gets impossible to hold in my mind. Then I work with revision charts and printed pages.
It's important to find a method that lets you "see" the whole book, not just its parts. My charts check for three main features in each scene and chapter: (1) is there an outer event, (2) what is my intent for that scene or chapter as writer, and (3) what is the reader's possible take-away about the characters, narrator, or message of the book. I create a big Excel document or a chart in Word for this step then enter all the data for each scene, each chapter. Tedious, yes. Revealing, absolutely. I can immediately see where I slipped out of reader view into my own limited intent.
(At my Madeline Island workshop in a few weeks, we'll be working with these charts. I'll be taking writers who are ready to move to reader's viewpoint through the necessary analysis that allows it. Click here for last-minute registration.)
Step Two: Weed Out Blah Verbs
Even though your manuscript as a whole fits your reader view now, you may still have spots of less conscious language choices. One typical area is blah verbs. We choose verbs in haste when drafting, and we may overlook their weakness. Here's a short checklist that many professional editors use.
1. Scour out the verb "to be": search for "was" and "is" and replace with more active choices.
2. Remove "had" as much as possible. "Had" is past perfect and is really only needed in the first instance of a flashback. Then most pros slide into simple past tense. For instance: "She had been a chef years ago. She landed a good job at Circus Maximus." Notice that the "had" places us in the backstory, but after we are there, we can move to simple past, with "landed."
3. Eliminate "ing" verbs. Gerunds are useful but slow down the pace. Compare: "He wired the alarm" with "He was wiring the alarm"--fast, punchy versus languid. Occasionally, languid verb forms draw out tension, but if you search, you'll be astonished how often you've unconsciously used them.
4. Replace "walk" and "move" with more vivid actions. "They moved across the field" versus "They sped across the field." Quite a difference.
5. An adjunct to weak verbs is often the overuse of adverbs. Wipe them out as much as you can if you've opted for "ly" descriptors instead of punching up the verb choice. Adverbs slow down the pace. Use them cautiously; sometimes they are essential, but can you get rid of most of them?
Step Three: Continuity Check
Revision means making sure all details are consistent throughout your manuscript. Here are the three biggest offenders to double check:
1. Verify the movement of weather and time of day, chapter to chapter. Make sure these are consistent and evolve logically. We can't go from midnight to midday without notice. I make a chart and double-check it against my chapters.
2. List all major items in your story--vehicles, physical details, room locations, possessions--anything that appears frequently. Use the checklist to search for each. Verify that you've used the same descriptions. A man with flaming red hair in chapter 1 who is suddenly bald in chapter 10 needs explanation.
3. List all names--place and people. Check for consistency. One of my mom's pet peeves (she's a voracious reader) is the author who changes a main character's name from Elise to Elaine mid-book.
Step Four: If It Still Doesn't Sing . . . Checklists for Content
If you still find yourself swimming in unease after these changes, you may need to go back to your content and upgrade it. Here are five small questions I ask myself, to bring content to another level:
1. Does each person in the story show inconsistencies? Humans do. We're generous and stingy. We're sweet and snarly. If your players aren't two sides of their own coin, stop protecting them. Show everything.
2. Are the places and peoples unique enough? I make lists of how each person differs from the others, then do the same with each location. Push this as much as you can.
3. Are there enough fights? Do they range in intensity? If not, add some. Conflict makes prose move.
4. Are there enough secrets? Do you reveal them too soon? Can you delay more, to build tension?
5. Does each chapter have a clear and definite purpose? If not, can you change it? Or eliminate it?
This Week's Writing Exercise
Pick one of the steps above. Try it out this week on a chapter or your entire manuscript. See how it works for you. Then try another, if you wish.
Slow and steady--most editors I admire have these qualities. It's something we writers may not come to naturally, but the revision process will certainly teach us better!
Fueled from Within or Without--How Does Your Narrator Move the Story Along?
As I often do when I need a jump start into a new book I'm writing, I signed up for an online class this summer. My class is good, with writers of varied skills and experiences, all exploring new narrators, characters, plots, and other ideas for their next manuscript.
Our instructor assigned us a well-reviewed contemporary novel to read and analyze during the course:
Chemistry by Weike Wang. It's generated a lively discussion, because, well, the narrator isn't lively at all.
Chemistry, which is written in the appealingly conversational style of
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? the narrator is admittedly lost. Her PhD program in chemistry is stalled out, she can't answer her boyfriend's proposal of marriage, and she doesn't know if she wants to move from Boston to Ohio. The story is more about her
lack of reactions to each event, punctuated by small bursts of anger (breaking five beakers in the lab) at her indecision and life's unfairness, than any actions she takes to drive the story forward.
To me, good book structure is based on two types of fuel. One is what happens from without--the events that cause a reaction in your narrator. The other is what happens within--realizations and decisions that are based on her reactions to these events. Within story structure, ideally there is a variety of these two fuels.
I use the W storyboard template to test them. Usually points 1 and 3 on the classic W storyboard are externally generated (view my video here, for more about this). The fuel comes from without. Something happens to the narrator that changes the game. Because of this external game-changer, the narrator has to react, make decisions. Or maybe he doesn't; he just hangs in there for dear life for a while. But eventually, the events should lead to fuel #2, the moment of "I can't take this anymore," where the narrator acts in his own behalf and makes a change. That's fuel from within. Usually points 2 and 4 on the storyboard use this kind of fuel.
Strong story structure goes back and forth in these main turning points--some fueled from without, some from within. You can also chart movement within each chapter, see the type of fuel you're using, make sure it's varied.
A book that offers nothing but external fuel (things happening to someone) can get tedious after a while. We don't see growth and change happening internally, decisions being made, will be exerted. The narrator remains a victim, which is essentially boring. The other extreme is also a deadend, in my opinion--all comes from within, and we aren't witness to the cause and effect that creates authentic change. When both are employed, you have a lovely balance, a rhythm, a believable person in charge of the story.
I'm midbook in
Chemistry now, and although the writing style still delights my mind, my heart is cold to this narrator. I'd stop reading if I didn't have to read it. Things are happening, but the narrator has no reaction except angst and stagnation. No decisions are being made on any front. My reactions range from mild annoyance to irritation to boredom. The book got high praise from reviewers but it's not my kind of story because nobody is driving this train.
If a narrator stops driving the story, by the logic of cause (something happening) creating an effect (a reaction) creating another cause (the action she or he takes in response), is the story moving at all?
That's a question to ask yourself for your weekly writing exercise. If you want to take it further, break down your story by external and internal fuel. What kind do you use, where? Is there variation, or do you depend wholly on one or the other?
Backstory--A New Take on Its Usefulness in Memoir and Fiction
I "grew up" as a writer in the era of NO BACKSTORY ALLOWED. I was given examples of stories and books that had zero backstory and engaged readers completely. So I worked hard to eliminate any pesky references to the past--whether summarized as backstory (background of the story) or presented as flashbacks in scene.
I got published, and all was well in my writing life sans backstory for many years. Flash forward to my MFA experience and advisers who began to cure me of my antagonistic attitude towards stalling out scene with flashback or inserting large swaths of the past as summary. These writers hinted that backstory was important, even as an explanation of character motive.
Why people do what they do was becoming more interesting to readers than
what they did.
My favorite books started having backstory sprinkled here and there, expertly placed, of course. Sometimes, as a reader, I didn't even notice we'd moved to the past. I also gained a lot more information and understanding of character from these little hints. So I began to practice ways to do it myself.
It's like that old conundrum of "show, don't tell," which has been drilled into writers for decades. Maybe it came about because writers do tend to "tell" their stories in their formative years. But all "show" doesn't quite work either. It has to be a balance.
Same with backstory. So I was thrilled when I came across this article in Poets & Writers magazine about the uses of backstory, aptly titled "I Wasn't Born Yesterday." It's the basis for your weekly writing exercise, if you want another view on how to insert the past more elegantly into your fiction or creative nonfiction. Here's the
And if it doesn't work, go to www.pw.org/content and search for the title above. (Thanks again to Alison Murphy for sharing this link.)
After you read the article, take a 10-page section of your manuscript, however rough, and underline or highlight all the backstory--anything that takes place before the story begins. For instance, if we're in a hovel listening to a storyteller relate an event that happened fifteen years ago, the present-time story is taking place in the hovel and the backstory is the story he's relating. You'll learn some interesting things about your tendencies with backstory. At least I did!
100 Things about Writing a Novel--Wisdom from Alexander Chee
I've long admired the novelist Alexander Chee, not just for his writing, but for his approach to writing. It's sensible, it works, and he shares his tips and ideas generously.
I'm taking an online course with Grub Street to kick start my next book, and the instructor, Alison Murphy, shared a wonderful article from the
Yale Review where Chee offers 100 things he's found about writing a novel. The insights are so useful, and not just to novelists but anyone writing a book-length work, that I thought I'd share as this week's writing exercise.
to read the article. (If for any reason the link doesn't work, go to yalereview.yale.edu and search for Alexander Chee. Enjoy!
Querying Too Soon: We've All Done It, Here's How to Avoid the Temptation
You've been working hard on your manuscript and it feels in reasonable shape. Plus, you're reading articles and books about writing the perfect query letter. A sort of urgency, maybe even FOMO (fear of missing out), is growing inside. Is it too soon to begin the query process?
An all-important question. I can almost predict when a writer will ask it. What stage of manuscript, what stage of experience. I've asked it myself many times--because it's almost impossible to know when is too soon, when is too late. I'll share some of what I've learned in my own publishing journey and advice from those who have an inside view.
Most agents I talk with say that writers send their queries out way too early in the process. Most agents, nowadays, will want to see the manuscript or at least a very polished sample, if they like your query. Gone are the days when memoir or fiction writers could sell based on a query or proposal (memoir-hybrids, which combine personal experience with investigative topics, still sell on proposal). So your query, now, is an introduction to your complete manuscript and a promise that you have it ready.
Jane Friedman, in her excellent guide to publishing,
Publishing 101: A First-Time Author's Guide,
recommends waiting until you're absolutely sure. You only get one chance with an agent, 99 percent of the time. Friedman asks writers: "What's the rush?"
That's the question that fascinates me.
It's about two things: (1) your ability to hold creative tension and (2) your insight into your manuscript's readiness.
Holding creative tension is a learned process. It's not a skill most of us have when we begin. Signs of not being able to hold it are asking for feedback immediately on anything you write. Or getting bored and moving around your manuscript's topics a lot--not being able to go deep, just broad. I see it in myself whenever I am writing something challenging, maybe a topic that's out of my comfort zone or a section that demands a new skill I'm not quite confident in yet. I stop writing, go pace or eat or clean. If I do this enough, I recognize it as the inability to let the creative tension build inside. I discharge it too soon, because it's uncomfortable. If I hang in there, I often break through to a new level.
I see it in writers who break a cardinal rule of book writing and ask for feedback from friends or family on first drafts, saying, "Tell me if you like it." Really a silly question--what's the person going to say? If they love you, they'll probably say yes. You won't believe that, of course, because the request comes from the Inner Critic who is looking for permission to stop (Scroll down to last week's post for more about that). So you'll keep circling until you find someone who has a comment. But on a first draft--are you kidding?! Why does anyone need comments on first drafts, except encouragement to keep going.
Note that I'm talking to myself here, too. I've done this, many times.
Creative tension comes from lots of time. It's part of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours required to master any skill. Don't get down on yourself for not having it honed yet--it's like scolding yourself for not being a concert violinist after a year or two of lessons.
Holding creative tension is like watching a water balloon fill. The more you can wait, the more power you gather. The more muscle you can build.
The second reason writers want to query too soon is confusion about where their manuscript is, in the long journey to publication. They've written solo, without feedback. They've held the creative tension. They've got a good draft. But how good? How do they know where they stand?
Two sources await. One is peer review--writers groups, writing partners, classes. You've put tons of effort and time into this manuscript, so take a little more and get some feedback from your potential readers. I always use classes, groups, and partners at this early stage. They are the best response for the money and time, usually. Select a class that offers feedback from both instructor and other students, if you can. You won't be "workshopping" your entire manuscript but you'll get a sense if some of it works. Writing partners are often able to exchange chapters or larger sections. You find them in good classes. Most writers who go on to publish work this part of the process thoroughly before they go on to the next source: paid coaches and editors.
Friedman recommends hiring a professional to read your manuscript before you begin to query. You need someone who has been published a lot, someone who knows the industry and can tell you where you stand. If you haven't used the first step, of peer review, professional review will probably shock you. Editors don't hold back. I like to coach writers for several weeks after my review, because I know the shock effect of the professional feedback I give--writers are often stunned, and they need to be gentled through the steps of fixing, rethinking, restructuring. But many editors just report and leave you to it. Because this level of feedback costs thousands (up to $10,000 a manuscript by some editors), it's very worthwhile, again, to make use of peer review first. Make this one count; get your manuscript to a point where you get your money's worth.
I usually hire a pro a few times, in the journey of a book, because the first round tells me so much. I need another round because I am not sure of my fixes. I want a green light before I begin to query.
When you're ready to query at last, you'll have a complete manuscript (unless you're writing prescriptive nonfiction or memoir-nonfiction hybrid), a solid query letter that's also been edited by a pro, and a synopsis of your book. These are the items in hand. One agent I spoke with recently gets over 200 queries a week. When she likes something she asks for a sample (the first 20-50 pages). If that passes, then she'll want the full manuscript. Sometimes these requests come within weeks of querying, sometimes within months. If you're not ready, if you want too long to send what's asked for, you fall out of the agent's close vision and you may have to begin again.
Querying is so tempting. Enough already, I usually feel, when the urge to query arises. I'm tired of the long haul of writing, I want those fast rewards. I want a guarantee that I'm writing something interesting and publishable. I rein myself in, return to less-costly routes to get my answers. Save querying for when I'm really ready.
But most writers query too soon. We pile up those rejections--so many are obviously form rejections, telling us the agent's assistant's assistant read no more than the first line. We go back to basics and start again, crossing those agents off our future lists, since they won't look again at the same project. It's an expensive habit, to query too soon, but it's how we learn there's a smarter way.
Battling Your Inner Critic or Making Friends with It--What Keeps You Writing the Most?
Everyone faces the Inner Critic, no matter how experienced they are. Professional writers, even those who have published widely and won awards, might give it names. Sue Grafton calls hers "the ego," the part that's always concerned with "how are we doing?" I think of mine as an elderly, worried aunt, trying to keep me safe. Some Inner Critics are funny, joking with you inside your head as they mess with your mind--maybe teasing you about taking writing so seriously. Most are discouraging, even menacing.
But rarely is this inner voice truthful--its job is to sabotage all efforts to create art, to do anything with our writing that takes us out of the known and acceptable.
So why is such an obstacle there, in the first place? Is there a chance we, ourselves, create that critical voice? And is there any way to make friends with it, silence it enough so we can keep on writing?
I'm not talking about taming the voice with alcohol or drugs or other medicating behaviors. (You've probably read about famous writers in past and present who couldn't loosen up enough to write--or even function in their lives--otherwise.) That's not the only way.
How to Recognize the Inner Critic
I believe each writer has a negotiated contract with her or his Inner Critic. We've known each other a long time and we aren't the victims of these voices. They developed on purpose, as a kind of gatekeeper to protect the most tender, creative parts of ourselves. Maybe we grew up in an environment dangerous to art and creativity, and the Inner Critic is our inner warrior. In most cases, the contract has been in place for so many years, it's hard to believe we have any control over it.
I also believe that most of us, when first becoming aware of how the Inner Critic is keeping us stuck, choose to fight it instead of re-negotiating the contract. Common wisdom suggests that a fight makes sense--using any means we can. But in my experience that turns into a never-ending battle. Taking time away from our writing. Which is the Critic's plan, anyway.
Here's a way that's worked for me and what I teach students and clients in my classes who are serious about finishing their books: (1) Get to know your Critic and (2) make it into an ally, not an enemy.
First step: Get to know the signs of Inner Critic influence. It can be quite subtle. When I begin to think about how something will sound to others, versus how it sounds to me, I go on alert. When I find myself avoiding my writing for days, it's also a good sign that the Critic is hovering. Especially when I sudden feel that overwhelming urge to clean the entire house.
I've also found it appears in different guises at different stages of the writing process.
For instance, when you first begin to explore and plan out a book idea, the Inner Critic might rumble in the background, causing doubt that your ideas are serious enough or good enough, or asking why you think you have the creativity and stamina a book will take.
If you pass that gateway, the Critic might convince you to get feedback right away, before you even write a chapter. Ask someone close, it whispers, like a friend or partner--no matter that this person doesn't read books, or even like fiction. They'll tell you the truth, right? This, of course, is a not-so-subtle sabotage attempt, made real when your friend mentions missing commas, or your partner doesn't comment at all.
Critical voices sneak in as you revise, too. As you're fine-tuning steps, the Critic will tell you to focus on marketing instead--get that query letter written, send the manuscript off now, why wait. Or edit out those juicy parts because your relatives will shun you when they read them.
Believe me, it rears its head as you try to sell your book. In full battle mode, the Inner Critic can keep you awake at night with nightmares about rejection letters and the award your writing friend just won--and how you don't have a chance. Or if publication happens, the fears that all your secrets--and inadequacies--are laid bare. Plus, look at those terrible reviews.
Damaging, eh? Damn right. Time to get to know it so you can see past its irritating qualities into what it's really there to do--for you.
The Inner Critic as a Gatekeeper
For most of my writing life, I fought the Inner Critic as an enemy. It was only when I was writing my second self-help/memoir that I realized the Inner Critic's benign efforts to protect me. I'll share this story, from my book Your Book Starts Here, to illustrate the gatekeeper aspect of this inner voice.
I was writing a chapter about my business bankruptcy which happened during the 1980s recession. It was a terrible time in my life, and yet I knew I wanted to include it in my book, since I'd learned so much from it.
As I wrote, the Inner Critic began flooding me with feelings of shame about the failure I still felt. I noticed I was writing more slowly, even reluctantly, as the voice inside my head got louder. "Why bring up this all over again?" it argued. "Totally in the past, not helpful to anyone else. Let it be."
But I persisted, angry at its interference. Suddenly I had to run to the bathroom. I was very ill, vomiting and dizzy. As I lay on the bathroom floor, the cold tiles against my face, I wondered if this was the work of the Inner Critic. Had it escalated the sensation of shame so strongly, that it turned into a physical reaction?
After a while, I came back to my desk. I was shaken. How could I keep writing if I was going to make myself sick? But I knew in my heart that the bankruptcy story was important in my book. During the 1980s recession, I met so many people who were devastated by failing businesses and personal loss. I wanted to help them with my own and others' experience. How could I do this if I couldn't get past my own Inner Critic?
So I did what I tell my writing students to do: take a break and do a freewrite--write outside my story. I located my writing notebook under the manuscript pages. I began writing about being literally sick with shame. As I wrote, I got the idea to start a "treaty" letter to this Gatekeeper-as-Inner-Critic, thanking it for its help in keeping me safe all these years. I wrote about how I appreciated its role. I wrote how I understood why it brought caution to my writing life because it had my best interests at heart. With each sentence, I felt a lessening of tension in my gut, a softening in my heart. No longer waged in battle, I was able to see my Inner Critic in a new way.
Then I re-negotiated my contract.
I asked it kindly to step aside, to let me write this chapter. I explained why I needed to write it, reassured the Critic that this story didn't have to end up in the final book. I just needed to get it on paper. When the letter was finished, I closed my notebook and went back to my desk. The chapter flowed out better than I could've imagined and the Inner Critic was noticeably calmer the rest of that writing session. My Inner Critic only wanted to protect me from the shame of fame: people looking at me in a different way because I told about a business failure many years before. By collaborating with this gate-keeping voice, instead of rejecting its help, I was able to proceed.
My intuition was right-people needed to hear about self-forgiveness for big mistakes.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise: A Letter to the Inner Critic
This is an exercise we use in my class, Your Book Starts Here. Try it yourself if you're finding yourself stalled out or fighting your writing. It's a great way to bring more awareness of--and more thankfulness for--your Inner Critic, the first step to re-negotiating your contract with it.
1. Describe your Inner Critic. What does it sound like? Can you picture it? Does it remind you of someone in your past?
2. Now ask the Inner Critic what it's contributing to your life. Listen inside for anything that might come, even small things it does for you. How does it keep you safe? How does it keep you connected to others? How does it keep you responsible? How does it make you feel intelligent? How does it bring you respect of peers?
3. Finally, thank it for its help in these areas. If more comes to mind as you write, add your gratitude about those.
4. To close the exercise, write a request to the Inner Critic: ask it to step aside for a week. Re-negotiate your contract. Tell it you'll be exploring a new avenue in your writing and you feel you need freedom. Ask for its help in letting you try it.
If you'd like, mark on your calendar to follow up in a week. After one week, spend five minutes freewriting about any changes you've noticed. Are there fewer blocks in your creative process? Is your writing any different? Do you experience less negative self-talk?
How Do You Procrastinate? Tips to Recognize How You Avoid Your Writing and What to Do about It
Many writers I talk with are masters at procrastination, yet they manage to complete and publish books regularly. What's that about?
Here's what I've learned:
* they've also mastered a particular kind of self-talk
* they use routines or disciplines
* they work with self-imposed or other-imposed deadlines
* they promise themselves rewards when they meet a writing goal
I know about these. A professional journalist for over twenty years, I'm seriously driven by deadlines from agents, editors, and publishers. Deadlines make me get that writing done and kept me generating a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times syndicate for twelve years without missing one. Same with magazine article when I'm contracted to write. Getting paid made all the difference.
Externally imposed deadlines carry weight for me, and I don't procrastinate on those. But internally imposed ones, they don't do the same
Books, before I signed a contract with an agent or publisher, were completely in my timing. Nobody really cared if I completed them or not. I had to set my own deadlines, via editors-for-hire, writing partners, pitch conferences, or classes. I knew I wouldn't get my books done without this.
You've probably heard about Gretchen Rubin's new book, The Four Tendencies. Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, which launched her into the stratosphere as an author. I find her writing and ideas both terrifically annoying (because she's so often right) and intriguing. I do buy and read her books, snark about them for a while, then find myself using her philosophy to my advantage as a writer and human being.
The Four Tendencies is all about how we are motivated. Based on her research, she came up with four tendencies and believes most people can find a home in one. I don't care for the names she gave the tendencies, but again, after much grumbling, I find they fit well. I'll describe my take-away about them, from her book, and how they seem to apply to writers I know or work with.
Upholders are both internally and externally motivated. They'll get things done because they want to and because they promise they will. They can be rigid but they are very disciplined. Rubin herself is an upholder. One interesting caveat is that upholders will reneg on promises they feel go against their best interests, even if others are depending on them. They do what makes sense inside. As writers, they know how to structure ways to get their writing done and they will often produce well and be proud of it.
Obligers are externally motivated. They will only perform if they know someone is counting on them. They have a terrible time getting something done if they do not have a deadline that is connected to a team, a boss, a friend or family member who is depending on them. They show up beautifully for others, less so for themselves. They do great if there's a class where they are noticed if they don't turn in work, or with a coach or editor they pay to keep them producing.
Questioners are internally motivated. They do something only if it makes sense to them. They'll ask lots of questions and do tons of research to find the best way to do whatever they've decided to try. Sometimes the research can become an end in itself and keep them from writing, but they may not be able to comply with deadlines, if their questions aren't answered. Once they are, the questioner is good to go.
Rebels are the group that will hate to read this, hate to be categorized at all. They will not be motivated by anyone's deadline, neither other people's or their own. In fact, being true to themselves, what is happening inside, is vitally important to them, almost more than accomplishing anything. If someone suggests an idea or a new skill, rebels usually reject it immediately. They have to come up with the idea themselves for it to have merit. Unfortunately, they miss out on a lot of good stuff they could learn, but Rubin says rebels have a weakness: they'll do something out of love. In other words, if they love their book and REALLY want it to grow, they might listen to another writer, a teacher, or a coach. As long as that person says, "Your choice, but here's an option," the rebel is usually able to still follow their inner direction and get something done.
Read more about Rubin's four tendencies and take her little quiz here. Think about your own. Then, ask yourself how you might use this knowledge, even a little bit, to make your writing life happier, more successful, and more creatively satisfying.
And while you're musing, here's a great article on the latest way to procrastinate, called "procrastibaking," courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and my student, Rita (thanks, Rita!).
Interview with Chris Jones--Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication
I'm always fascinated with how debut authors make it into print. And I know and respect Chris Mackenzie Jones from my years of teaching for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where he works. So when his new book came out last month, I was keen to find out how he did it. Below is an interview with Chris which explains his idea for the book, how he found an agent and publisher, and what happened during the editing process.
Tell us how you came to write this book. Did you see a need for it? Was it a subject that fascinated you? Anything you want to share, please do.
In my almost nine years at the Loft Literary Center, I've run into hundreds-maybe thousands-of aspiring writers. I've listened to their ideas, questions, confusions, and doubts. And one of the things that became apparent to me over these years is that there are blind spots for most writers as they try to publish a first book.
I want to emphasize that I have tremendous respect for the books and resources already out there on craft, creativity, and the business side of publishing. But I've noticed those excellent books tend to focus on one issue: either issues of craft, or creativity and motivation, or publishing and marketing.
My book doesn't attempt to improve on those already excellent resources.Instead I tried to extend a broader lens by showing the complete paths to publication.I did this by interviewing a wide array of modern authors and weaving together their stories.
I tend to learn best through example, so I felt that portraying the stories of diverse debut authors would be the best way to demonstrate potential paths. My goal was not to depict a replicable path, but instead to share and illuminate the major decisions a modern author needs to consider, so that aspiring authors could better prepare themselves for the process.
Share your publication process, if you can (many of my readers are nonfiction authors). Did you submit a proposal? Why did you choose this press?
I came up with the idea for this book several years ago. I had never seen a book like it, but I didn't really know if something else like it existed, or if it was even a book that would be marketable. So I contacted Dawn Frederick. Dawn is the owner of Red Sofa Literary agency and also teaches several classes at the Loft. Over a cup of coffee, I explained my idea to her. She said it sounded intriguing, so we talked a lot more.
This led to me developing a book proposal and eventually a sample chapter, and then signing on with Dawn to represent me. She began pitching the book to several publishers, and I was so excited when the University of Chicago Press indicated an interest because their series of books on writing and editing are such valuable resources. I met with editor Mary Laur, and she told me two things.
First, she was very interested in my book. Second, she thought I should change the entire structure of the book, which I admit was daunting. I had initially envisioned having each author interview-and the story of that book's publication-appear as a standalone chapter. But Mary challenged me to instead think about the steps in the publication path, and to weave the stories together within that framework. This made the book a much more challenging project, but I'm so grateful because it also made it much stronger. By focusing the chapters on topics like support networks, setbacks, various craft issues, etc., it allowed me to cut out repetitive stories and get to the meat of the issues. It also meant the book was better organized, and easier for aspiring writers to browse for ideas on specific challenges or questions they have.
How is this book different from other books on writing? What does it offer readers?
I may have already answered this a bit in the first question, but basically, it attempts to paint with a broader brush the complete story of modern authors bringing their first book into the world. The chapters are broken down by topic: idea generation, developing a writing process, finding support, dealing with craft issues, developing authenticity and depth in the work, approaching revision, navigating potential publishing paths, dealing with setback, preparing to publish, promoting the book in the world, and then lessons learned.
So while there are already excellent resources out there that cover these topics, there are few that cover them all at once.My hope is that this format can better help an aspiring writer envision their own unique path.
How did you find your debut authors? What was it like interviewing them?
I started by developing a master list of potential people to invite. My initial criteria were three-fold: 1) they needed to be a debut author, ideally within the last five years, but certainly within the last ten; 2) they needed to be diverse in their backgrounds, genres, approaches, and stories; and finally, 3) the authors needed to have found some level of success.
This last criteria was the most vague for me. I didn't just mean runaway bestseller, because that is not the only kind of publishing experience. In fact, it's the exception for a debut author. So instead, I wanted to find authors who would label their first book, in one way or another, a success for them. Maybe it won an award, maybe it gave them the credibility to move onto an even more successful project, maybe it sold way more than they thought it would. But in one way or another, these books could all be called successful.
Oh, and of course, there was a fourth criteria: were they willing to do it? This wasn't just a run-of-the-mill interview process. I asked a lot out of these authors. I conducted two- to three-hour initial interviews with them and had several email follow-up exchanges. They were each so generous with their stories and their time. This project could have died on the vine if the authors weren't open and generous, and to a person, they surpassed my expectations.
What were the biggest challenges in crafting the structure of the book?
It was definitely changing the structure-from profiling each author chapter by chapter to breaking it down by subject matter instead. This also meant I needed to wait until all the interviews were scheduled and completed before I could start to write much. Then I needed to comb through the transcripts of the long interviews and look for themes and commonalities, so I could create a structure, then go back again and categorize their comments into the planned structure.
Finally, I needed to bring their thoughts together, and describe their stories in ways I hoped would be engaging or thought-provoking for others. When I read interviews with multiple people, one of my favorite things is when it feels like people that weren't in the room with each other are talking back and forth. I don't know if I've achieved that here, but I hope I have, because that was one of my goals.
Anything special or unique that you learned along the way?
Yes! When I set out to write this book, I never intended to find a single path that others could follow. There is no one path, and it would be silly to try to suggest otherwise.
But I think I was surprised by something on this matter. There is something related and shared between all the stories in my book, and I think it might be the biggest lesson an aspiring writer can learn.
Every writer I interviewed faced a big moment of setback or doubt-big enough that they thought about quitting. That includes me, by the way.
What I learned in writing this book is that the most important trait an aspiring writing can develop has nothing to do with writing chops, insider connections, or strong branding and marketing plans.It has to do with finding the will to carry on. Faced with personal and professional doubts and setbacks, these writers kept writing and kept trying to improve. They persevered.
For more information or to order Chris's book, click
Charts and Lists: The Fun of Organizing Your Story Structure
This week, I've been studying a page from the book-structure chart used by mega-successful author, J.K. Rowling, for her Harry Potter stories. You can access it
The chart is handwritten and hard to read, but it's fascinating to see what she uses to keep an overview of her story.
Thanks to Rita, one of my private clients, for sharing the link.)
So many published writers, when interviewed, talk about the need to organize their story structure. Storyboards are useful to a point. But charts and lists come in very handy when the first draft is complete and you're on to revision.
In Rowling's chart, you'll see a column for the date of that plot point, the plot point itself, a column called "prophecy" which alludes to the greater meaning of that event in Harry's story and the prophecy that haunts him, as well as several other interesting things she keeps track of.
Even if you're not an HP fan, it's educational to see how much charting goes behind the scenes with books by savvy writers.
In my private coaching, I use three to four different charts, depending on where my client is in the process of developing her or his book. Basic charts in fiction or memoir help track what's happening, the outer story, and how it relates to the narrator or main character's growth. In nonfiction we look at "talking points," the nonfiction version of plot points, and how they sequence like stepping-stones to get the point across. In all genres, we look at the difference between writer's intention and reader's take away, which can be vast, illuminating, and essential in revision. More advanced charts examine the inner and outer obstacles for the character or narrator and how the reader perceives those within the narrative arc.
For this week's writing exercise, I encourage you to start a chart. First, make a list of things you track in your story. Here are a few to consider:
Outer event--what is happening onstage (visible, audible, movement perceived)
Date of this event/day and time
Who is narrating this event (point of view)
Who else is present
Location (as specific as possible)
Primary sense in the scene (used by writer Celeste Ng--a very cool thing to consider)
Your intent as writer for this scene--what does it deliver?
Once you have your list, use Excel, Word, or an app, or create a handwritten version like Rowling's, and begin charting the first 25 pages of your story so far. It can be rough, even just ideas. Work forward as much as you can.
I recently redid my own chart for my second novel and discovered some missing elements, which, when fixed, made the chapters sing. I hadn't even realized what wasn't yet in place. That's the beauty of charts. They don't feel creative to most of us, but they organize the writing so more creativity can shine through.
Writing about Your Life--The Good, the Hard, and the Beautiful
Two of my students/clients have just published memoirs this month. Both have compelling--and difficult--stories to tell. The process of writing about your life for publication is not for the faint-hearted, as Chris Bauer and Mary Knutson can attest.
I also know their books have taken a lot of time, years, in fact. They have each experienced discouragement and exhilaration. I interviewed them for my blog this week, knowing they'd have good insights to share.
Mary Rose Knutson's memoir is
Maja and Me: My Journey with My Lesbian Daughter.
Mary is an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, but she didn't start out that way. I met Mary at one of my Madeline Island retreats and she's a quiet, sincere woman in her seventies who loves her Lutheran church, her family, and her Danish heritage. But when her daughter, Maja, came out to the family, Mary began a new path in her own life. And her memoir, Maja and Me: A Journey with My Lesbian Daughter, was born.
She said the idea for the book began when she was sitting in her church sanctuary praying alone and felt a soft tap on her shoulder, a calling of sorts, to write a book about their journey together. The words to a hymn came into her mind, she said, which talks about being sent to "hold your people in my heart." She interpreted "people" to mean the LBGTQ community, and she was being sent to advocate for them by writing this book. "It is the story of Maja coming out and the response from family," she says. "It is the painful story of rejection by some, but also about positive acceptance by others. It is also the story of unconditional love and of the constant challenges. It feels like being in a canoe and straining with every fiber of my being to force canoe paddles to overcome turbulent waters."
When Mary first began she felt a sense of naiveté about the book-writing process. "That was a blessing!" she says. At first she planned a pamphlet to tell her story about her growing awareness and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. She took
classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and my five-day summer workshop at Madeline Island School of the Arts in the Apostle Islands off the coast of Wisconsin in Lake Superior. She had about fifteen pages written and no clue how to proceed.
"I have always been an avid reader," Mary says, "and when Maja first came out to me I read as much as possible to have a better understanding of who Maja was becoming and who I was becoming as her mom in the support role. One of the books Maja and I read together was
by Betty DeGeneres." It helped Mary see that her journey was just as important as Maja's, for this book.
Instead of using an outline set in stone, she used the "W" format taught in my classes with Post-it notes to write subjects for each chapter. "I had one W for Maja and one for me; they changed many times over the development of the book," she says. Themes in the book seemed to evolve and intertwine as each chapter became more defined. Mary worked on
the book most mornings when her mind was clear and there were fewer interruptions. "The best advice I can give is... DO NOT CHECK E-MAIL first," she adds. Her bubble would burst and creativity flatten if she did.
She also joined several writing groups. "It helped to have encouragement from other writers and to have them look at my writing from a different point of view," she says. "I first started to think about writing this memoir in 2010. It took eight years from the beginning until the book came out in 2018." She worked with editor Beth Wright. "Revision was a three-year challenge," Mary says. "The manuscript went from about 300 pages to 140 pages. Beth would point out when I would veer off my point of view and I sometimes felt that my work was being slashed, but in the end I could see understand the reasoning behind the cuts. Beth had a team of editors ready to assist in the publishing process from book cover to design."
"To be an advocate for the LGBTQ community by writing my story is an ongoing journey," Mary says. "I hope that more people will feel brave enough to come out and that includes family members being able to talk openly about having members of their family that are lesbian, gay, bi, trans, questioning. To know that they are loved unconditionally and are not alone is one of the messages of this book."
Check out Mary's book by clicking here!
Chris Bauer's memoir is
Those Three Words: A Birth Mother's Story of Choice, Chance, and Motherhood.
Chris started writing her memoir thirty years ago. She felt she had an important story to tell, she says, "about the importance of choice, the bond of motherhood, and the love of family." Because when Chris was eighteen, just weeks into her freshman year of college, she found out she was pregnant.
"I was devastated," she says. "I was not ready to be a mother. I considered an abortion and in the end, chose to have my baby and place her for adoption. The decision affected me greatly throughout out my life, especially as I became the mother of two boys. My daughter did come back into my life and I feel it was all meant to be."
Chris kept a journal for much of her life so she had that to build on when writing her book. She stopped and started it so many times and finally finished it ten years ago. "I stopped along the way for many reasons. One was that it was hard to write: it was so emotional and so personal. Even now, when it is close to going to print, it freaks me out a little bit to be exposing so much of myself. I also stopped for long periods of time because I was busy with my job as a director of communications and marketing and as the mom of two busy boys."
Thewriting had many up and downs, Chris says, but mostly ups. She learned how important it was to have other people's input to make the story and the writing better. "To get my early drafts done, on several occasions I rented a hotel room and locked myself up for a few days with no distractions. I also took classes and sought out people to help me to give me honest, in-depth feedback."
Deciding to share her life like this was at times scary and challenging, she says, but it was also cathartic. "When I gave early drafts to my Mom and sister and they didn't have much feedback, I knew it wasn't very good. I almost gave up, but instead I sought out help."
"The scariest thing about publishing this book is sharing so much of myself," Chris says. "It's scary to put myself out there like this. But I knew if I didn't, it would bother me forever. It's a great feeling to achieve this and cross it off my bucket list."
Deciding to publish with an indie (partner) publisher was a pivotal decision for Chris. She tried for many years to get her book published through the traditional route, got good responses from agents, but ultimately no one was willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. About a year ago, she engaged the help of WISE, Ink. publishing to bring the book to print.
The most helpful input I got," Chris says, "was from working privately with you then the editors at WISE Ink. A developmental editor who helped me flesh out parts of the story that were weak or incomplete; I cut some sections that didn't add to the story. Then a line editor helped with sentence structure and tightening. As a writer, you get too close to it to see thing objectively, so it really is imperative to get objective feedback."
During the long haul of writing the book, Chris said her children and her work ethic kept her going. "My boys met their older sister when they were four and seven, and they accepted her with open arms and open hearts. It was a personal goal of mine to share my voice about women's right to choose."
How I Got My Agent--An Interview with Debut Author Kathleen West
Kathleen West came to several of my online classes in the early days of writing her first novel. She got structuring help and good feedback, and later we worked together privately to help her develop the character arcs for the multiple points of view in her woven narrative. After four months, she felt ready to finish revising on her own and start querying agents.
A few weeks ago, I got an excited email from Kathleen telling me she'd gotten an offer from not just one agent, but two! She's on her way to publication and I thought I'd interview her for the blog, find out the steps she took to land two offers of representation.
Tell us about your book-genre, topic, how you came to write it.
My book fits in the "contemporary women's fiction" genre. In the story, two women face simultaneous meltdowns in an affluent suburb where appearances are paramount. Here's the set-up as I wrote it in my query letter:
Isobel Johnson, an English teacher, has spent her career in Liston Heights side-stepping the community's high-powered families. When she receives a mysterious, threatening voicemail accusing her of Anti-Americanism and a "blatant liberal agenda," she realizes she's squarely in the fray. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Abbott, a helicopter stage mom obsessed with the casting of the winter musical, inadvertently elbows the female lead in the gut while celebrating her son's mid-size speaking role. She's the instant star of a damning viral video.
I'm a career English teacher, so Isobel came naturally to me. Elizabeth appeared in my psyche when my oldest child, a student at the school where I work, auditioned for the middle-school musical. My colleague asked if I planned to go check the cast list when it was posted. I said that seemed a little over-the-top, pushing kids out of the way to look at the list. She and I started to imagine who WOULD do that. Turns out, it was my character, Elizabeth.
What's your writing background? Is this your first book?
I have been writing a blog for nearly fourteen years. The blog helped me reclaim a writer identity in my post-college, early career, new-mom years. Detention is my first finished book. I'd started another book and worked on it for a year before abandoning it for the current idea. In those shelved pages, I tried for a more literary feel in a story that spanned generations. It was too ambitious, but I'm hoping to resurrect the characters in another project.
How long have you been working on it? What kept you going through the hard parts?
Your online classes motivated me to reach my word count goals and also connected me with my wonderful critique partners, Nigar Alam and Maureen Fischer. When I'd gone as far as I could on my own, I hired you for coaching. To be honest, investing in classes and coaching kept me motivated and accountable--I didn't want to waste the money I'd spent! It took two years to write the book to the query stage.
What kind of support did you have while you were working on and finishing the manuscript? Writers groups, classes, coaching, etc.?
In addition to classes and coaching and coffees with my critique partners and other writing buddies (including a colleague who helped me identify my missing antagonist), I love following the #5amWritersClub Twitter hashtag. There are scores of early-morning scribblers out there who encourage each other with quick check-ins.
When did you know you were ready to begin querying?
querying too early. I'd finished the book and sent it to Nigar, Maureen, and two others for beta reading. Then I got antsy waiting for feedback. I sent five query letters to keep myself busy before Nigar broke the news that I should consider heavily revising my first chapter.
She was right on, so I did that between my first and second rounds of querying. My plan was to start slow, gauge response, and then make changes to my letter and manuscript as necessary. I didn't get any requests from that first round, so I should have waited. It turned out OK because I'd decided not to query all "dream" agents off the bat--I'd kept some that I thought would be more perfect fits for later.
Share your agent research process--what databases did you use, how many agents did you choose for the initial querying, and what was the process you used to keep track of responses?
I took an additional class through the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis called "Query Comprehensive." The literary agent who taught the course gave two rounds of feedback on the letter itself and then offered advice on researching agents and keeping track of queries. Primarily, I used the "Manuscript Wish List" website. I searched it for keywords and comp titles.
I also bought the Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents and visited agency websites. Once I found agents that I thought would like my book, I read their Twitter feeds and searched for interviews with them. This helped me personalize each query. Finally, I subscribed to Publishers Marketplace. I looked at each agent's deals--what types of books they were selling and how often.
I kept a spreadsheet of relevant information, including the dates I sent queries and got rejections or requests.
Share your agent responses--yeses, no's, maybe's--and what you did about each one, internally and externally. Rejections can be hard for writers. How did you manage that?
Although the rejections stung a little bit, I wasn't too fazed by them. I'd already decided that I'd query the book until I had 100 rejections. I tried to re-frame each one as a step toward that goal. Some agents don't bother to send a rejection, but rather indicate on their submission pages that they'll only contact you if they're interested. I actually preferred that kind of rejection as the mini-roller coaster of seeing a reply in the inbox and having it be a form letter made me cringe.
I sent the initial queries in mid-January. In late January, I entered a contest called "Sun vs Snow" hosted on the blogs of YA writers Michelle Hauck and Amy Trueblood. I was thrilled to be chosen from 200 hundred entries to be in the agent round of 36 authors. As part of the contest, an agented writer helped me revise my query letter and the opening 250 words of the manuscript.
I got my first two requests for pages when the entries went live. One of the contest agents who requested the partial manuscript sent a thoughtful rejection with feedback about pacing in the opening chapters. I didn't act on that feedback, but filed it away in case others came back with something similar.
Around the same time as the contest, I decided to invest in one more round of editing on the query and first ten pages. I hired Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of Hyphen Craft, a former literary agent who represented books like mine. She helped me polish everything (including the synopsis, which was ridiculously hard to write) and choose comp titles. I queried two additional agents in February and three more in March.
How did the offers come? How soon after you sent the full manuscript? Did the agents call or email you? How did you decide on the one you chose to sign with?
In the end, I chose between two agents of that final round of five. I queried my first offering agent on March 3, and she requested the full manuscript and the synopsis on March 6. On March 13, she emailed me asking for a phone call. We talked that afternoon for 45 minutes about what she liked about the book, as well as her ideas for revision.
There was an awkward moment when she said, "You must have questions for me," but she hadn't yet officially offered representation. I had to first ask, "Are you offering to represent me?" We laughed, and said she'd learned the hard way not to lead with the offer in case the phone call went poorly. I loved chatting with her, and we agreed on March 23 as a deadline for getting back to her with my decision.
I then contacted the other four agents with whom I had outstanding queries as well as the agent who had my full manuscript from the contest. I got a lovely rejection (seems oxymoronic, I know!) from the one with the full manuscript. She complimented my writing, explained that she had a bit of hesitation about the book, and asked me to contact her with any future manuscripts should I find myself without representation.
Then another agent, Joanna MacKenzie at Nelson Literary, whom I'd queried in February asked me for the full manuscript and agreed to read it and get back to me by the deadline. On March 22, I wrote to her reminding her that I planned to honor the deadline. She wrote back asking for my patience and promising to get back to me later that afternoon. We talked a couple of hours later. The format of our call was similar to the first one I described. It was delightful, and I was over-the-moon thrilled to be in the position to choose.
I ended up selecting Joanna because I'd been targeting NLA from the beginning. They have a great newsletter and an interesting blog series for aspiring writers. I'd been reading it since I learned the word query. Joanna is a newer agent at the firm and works closely with Kristin Nelson who has a long track record of success. Further, she's heavily editorial, and I felt confident we could work together to improve my manuscript. I was impressed by the feedback Joanna's other clients provided when I reached out to them. It seems like this will be a great fit!
This is all so exciting! You're launched! So, what's next?
I'm now revising to Joanna's specifications. It turns out we will do some work on pacing in the first 50 pages as suggested by that very first rejecting agent! We plan to complete this round of revisions by June, at which time Joanna will begin submitting it to editors at publishing houses. I'm excited and daunted by these next steps!
Connect with Kathleen on Twitter (@52BooksPlus) or via her blog: www.wordsavvyblog.com.
Imagine Finishing Your Book! A Three-Part Exercise for Encouragement
When the book journey feels way too long and the end is nowhere in sight, I use this short but encouraging exercise to help me vision my way to finishing my book. You may not need it now, if you're rocking along. But there may be a time when it's useful. It has been for many of my clients who get stuck in the doldrums of are-we-there-yet?
Actually, pro writers often rely on "thinking from the end" to keep motivation high. One example is novelist Roxanna Robinson who mentioned in a workshop many years ago that she likes to towards an ending image as she begins a book. Seeing the end can help with the beginning stages, I've learned. In many of my classes, I assign the final chapter as a writing exercise--a very rough draft, but it often delivers huge encouragement and even excitement to writers who try it.
But here's my favorite exercise to bring on your book's completion. Maybe it'll feed your writing enthusiasm wherever you are right now.
Grab some paper and a pen or your laptop. Set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes.
Write, without editing or censoring anything, about how you might feel or look at your life or experience the moment when your book is finished. That means, it's ready to go out to agents or editors or your chosen self-publisher.
Then do the same for the moment when it is actually published and you hold a copy in your hands.
The writing may take you in unexpected directions. Let it go wherever it goes--even if it brings up concerns and fears about this, which it might, as well as excitement.
Writer Martha Beck calls this making a star chart (see her amazing book, Steering by Starlight, for more ideas along this line). Find a piece of 8-1/2 inch x 11 inch paper that you can fold in half lengthwise to resemble a blank book cover. Look at published books you love to use as a guide, if you wish.
Then gather 4-5 magazines and a pair of scissors, and gluestick or tape. Set the kitchen timer for 30 minutes and scan the magazines for the perfect image for your book cover. You can also do this online, using free images from google or bing.com.
Create the front of the book using this image.
Next, write some wonderful
blurbs for your front and back cover. In your wildest dreams, who would you most love to write a blurb for your book? Which reviewers from The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly might read your book and rave about it? Which famous authors? Draft some stellar reviews (make them realistic but also reach for the stars!) and paste them to the back cover, selecting the best one for the front.
If you want to go all out with this exercise, add a made-up bar code and back cover copy and even a spine. Get into it--it's really fun (and actually helps you feel like you might someday finish!).
Dream your publication party.
When books are published, someone (friends, relatives, book clubs, even the publisher sometimes) will throw you a pub party. Where would you most like to have it? Who might you invite? Imagine the music, food, literary stars, speeches, and you signing many copies of your books as they are sold to eager readers.
Set your kitchen timer for 20 minutes and list all your wishes.
Put these three jewels of your future up on your writing wall, scan them to your phone or desktop, and keep them in your awareness each day. It's a common practice among published writers, so why not make it yours?
Chapterettes, Prologues, Introductions, and Other Spare Parts--What Purpose Can They Serve in a Book?
I happen to love small pieces of books: prologues, introductions, forewords, even epilogues, and epigraphs (those quotes or small things planted before each chapter). Such add-ons often get derided in writing classes, but they still serve a unique purpose.
I fought one of my MFA advisers who hated the idea of a prologue in my young-adult novel, and won--it got published to good reviews. No one complained about the prologue, which ran two pages at most.
So why so many warnings and controversies? What do these small elements contribute to a book and why would a writer be wary of them?
One editor for a small press gave me a clue. Bookstore browsers (online too) check out the worth of a book before buying by looking at these items in this order: front cover; back cover or inside flap (reviews, blurbs, and tag line or synopsis); any table of contents; and first few pages. Since prologues aren't really the start of the story, they may get short shrift from browsers and the book gets set aside. Same with introductions or forewords--they clutter the pathway to that all-important opening chapter.
But I still love them. And so might you. So can you risk adding them to your manuscript?
A blog reader who had attended my week-long writing workshop/retreat on Madeline Island last summer wrote me about this conundrum. She wondered specifically about those opening chapters where "a little nugget is posted, almost like the two-note pick-up before a song starts for real," and its connection to the larger story is not revealed for a long time.
"In my book," she writes, "a 1950s woman marries a man, not knowing how abusive he is." This character wants to get away from home to escape abuse there, and she figures marriage will be better.
But the real triggering event in this author's book is the now-elderly woman's desire to get a letter to her son and son's father after her death, telling each of them the truth. She wants to still include a chapterette about what drove the woman to near suicide because of her family background of abuse. The writer wondered if it was too dramatic, too much.
Not to me. I think it's a cool way to start up. It reminds me a bit of the structure of the movie Titanic, where we get a scene of the shipwreck then flash forward to the elderly survivor telling the tale.
In this case, and in the book this author is working on, there are actually two storyboards to consider: the backstory is dramatic enough in its own right to chart on the W structure (see video
to learn more about this), and the front story, or the one that's happening now. The challenge is to make sure your backstory isn't the most dramatic. If you lead with a chapterette on that (or a prologue), create the momentum for the reader to enter the front story with an equally strong inner story. If the woman is desperate to confess all before she dies, that's pretty compelling.
Too Much Reflection? How to Make Sure Your Story Doesn't Stall Out
One of my blog readers sent me a wonderful question last week. It's a question that many writers struggle to answer. It had come to mind when she read my post a few weeks ago about creating enough pauses for meaning within the flurry of events in your story.
But what about the opposite? she wondered. If you're not an event writer, and maybe you write in too many pauses, how do you work with that tendency?
"My memoir hasn't got many events," she added. "It is a reflective, and in this instance a political, memoir about a chapter in history that requires some explaining as well as my own reflections."
Many writers whose tendency is towards reflection wonder about this. Can too much reflection overwhelm the narrative?
A short answer: yes. But it's not that simple. And it depends where you are in the book-writing process.
There are two ways that reflection enters a story. One is conscious and one is unconscious. The unconscious reflection arrives very naturally in the early stages of writing a book--because we write to tell ourselves what we're writing about. We tell ourselves the story to figure out what we want to say.
Most writers need this. Joan Didion was famous for saying "I don't know what I think until I write it down" and before her, Flannery O'Connor said "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say." Not to leave out the men writers: Stephen King says "I write to find out what I think." Professional writers don't try to avoid this; they often embrace it, because great books are built from this early-stage reflection. Forget what you learned in high school about carefully constructing your thoughts before putting them to paper and accept that there's often a discovery process that's essential to books. It consists largely of reflective writing.
I find it very natural and healthy for the creative brain because it allows a story to travel to new places you might not have considered.
But it's usually unconscious. Important to realize this! Readers will not necessarily want to be part of this reflective period. They may tolerate a certain amount of wandering in a book (it's also delightful to be part of the author's discoveries) but the naturally unconscious process of early reflective writing feels loose and unstructured, almost lazy to readers. They want you to guide them on a more purposeful journey that only comes after you have chewed through the meat of your topic and come up with something unique to say, something new and relevant.
Unconscious reflective writing might delight us, as freewrites do, as journal writing does. But it's the writer talking to the writer.
That's the first kind of reflective writing: essential but unconscious. Once we've done enough of it to know our book inside out, we move on. We revise, tighten, and bring the reader into the conversation.
That leads us to the second kind of reflective writing. Its hallmark is story. Often, reflection in revision comes out as story, as illustrative, humanizing scenes that show a point rather than tell it.
I think about writers of prescriptive nonfiction (memoir-information hybrids, information-based books, how-to's, self-help, academic books) as guidebooks to a topic or a method or an idea. In academic publishing they are still purely informational, but in mainstream publishing, because of changes to our reader brains in the past ten years, we've moved to illustrating our reflection with story. Partly, we can blame this on our media culture but we must also consider the influence of writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Mary Roach, and Rebecca Skloot, to name just a few.
Maybe it's memoir, as in Skloot's case, or maybe it's illustrative anecdotes as in Gladwell and Roach's books. But unless you're writing solely for academia, for use as textbooks in classrooms, you might need to dial back the purely reflective and replace it with the illustrative to survive in today's publishing world. This isn't about dumbing down your material or the seriousness of your thoughts. It's about seeding your narrative with enough illustration to balance the reflection or information.
One of my past students, Katherine Ozment, published a very well-received book last year called Grace without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. This is a heady and controversial topic. Ozment handled it beautifully by inserting her own story into the discussions about faith and its pros and cons. If you want to read a good balance of reflection and illustration, check it out. And it doesn't have to be your personal story that balances the information; like Gladwell and Roach, you can use other people's stories.
This week's writing exercise for those of you struggling with such a question as my blog reader, above, is to take a chapter of your manuscript, no matter the genre, and highlight anything that's internal or reflective. Where are you (or the narrator) thinking, feeling, mulling over, digesting, remembering? Highlight these passages, then squint at the pages. What's the balance?
Then find a recently published book in your genre. Do the same there (photocopy the pages, to keep your book intact, or highlight onscreen then erase). What balance does this book use?
That will give you a pretty accurate ratio to use. Adjust as necessary.
Finding the Best "Triggering Event" for Your Book--How to Launch Your Story
In two weeks, I'll be teaching a workshop at the Loft Literary Center where we'll examine book structure: what makes a book successful, in terms of its structure, and how can you choose the pivotal moments in your story wisely? Many books are beautifully written but poorly structured, and many writers haven't a clue as to how to fix that.
In the workshop, we build storyboards. These might be very developed or very rough--idea stage--depending on where you are with your book. Some writers have an entire manuscript drafted but can't tell if it's hanging together well. Others want to get started, they have a good idea and some writing or no writing, and a storyboard can be the perfect activity to help them "brainstorm" their book's flow. It's very exciting, by the end of the day-long workshop, to see how many "books" are in place now. Storyboards make a writer realize how real the book is--sometimes for the first time.
One of our most important conversations in the workshop is about triggering events. I thought I'd share a post from my current online book-structuring class, to give you a preview of the workshop and an exercise to try, if you'd like to make sure you have the best possible launching moment for your story.
Robert Frost famously said, "Poems begin with a lump in the throat." He went on to describe the beginnings of the best poems as always about something lost, homesickness or lovesickness, a longing. This is, of course, the inner-story motivation for whatever happens in your book. It triggers movement by the
main character (novel), the narrator (memoir), or your reader (nonfiction).
The outer aspect of this "lump in the throat" is called a
Because literature must show us, not just tell us about, story, the inner motivation must be demonstrated in outer event.
So the triggering event, which launches your book, will be born of inner movement, but it will always be demonstrated through an outer event.
Outer events can be dramatic, or they can be everyday, but they must be delivered to the reader via outward action, dialogue, and a specific moment in time and space.
Check out the opening of favorite books to see how other authors do this, especially ones published within the past few years. Check out what you might be thinking for your opening and see if it follows these criteria.
Of course--there are exceptions! Some well-loved authors begin slowly, and the triggering event comes within the first few chapters. But you'd be surprised how many manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers because "nothing happens" right off. Readers nowadays are geared to events, action, and seeing stuff happen--before they know the background or meaning.
And--it's a balancing act. We have to care about your story, your characters, and their dilemmas, so there has to be some meaning embedded. Triggering events are both outer story and inner story for that reason. You have to choose well.
So what kind of outer event makes the best triggering event?
Something happening now, in the present-time story, onstage before us readers.
We need to witness it ourselves, not be told about it secondhand. It's not summarized, usually--"ten years passed" or "it was a week before we . . . ." They are immediate, now, right in front of us, onstage. That's the ideal to shoot for.
Some writers wonder if their best triggering events can be in the past. This is less ideal, but possible. Most really great books launch with an event happening now, not a memory or backstory (events in the past) or an internal decision.
Sometimes, if a backstory event precedes the story and is vital to the story, the author creates a prologue.
But, bottom line: a triggering event must be demonstrated outwardly, so readers can see and feel its effect on the character. Best option is to choose an event in the current time of your story, where the story begins.
I like to think of the triggering event as the launch-pad for a book. Without it, none of the book can happen.
Some examples of triggering events:
Novel or memoir
--A fire, an accident, a discovery of letters, a phone call that changes everything, a birth or death, something lost that will need to be found, a mundane everyday happening that changes everything, a wedding that has a hint of something not right, an impulsive action that is embedded with regret, a move, a starting over.
Nonfiction (how to, or informational) book
--An anecdote about someone who needs the material in your book, such as a disaster or problem that occurs in a business, a person's "lowest moment," a loss of something valuable, a dilemma that is puzzling.
Your weekly writing exercise
Brainstorm three possible triggering events for your book. You may already have one in mind, even written. Make sure it follows the criteria above, tweak if it doesn't, consult your brainstorming list if your chosen triggering event is way off base or too internal.
Think over the guidelines above: is it outer story, is it happening now, is it dramatic enough to launch the rest of your story?
- Choose one of your triggering event possibilities. Set your phone alarm or kitchen timer for 20 minutes.
- Freewrite about the cause and effect of this opening--what might come of it. List ten things that happen as a result.
- Then check to see how many of these are embedded in subsequent chapters
If you'd like to join me at the storyboarding workshop on Friday, March 30, and get feedback on your triggering event ideas, here's a
to the Loft Literary Center's website to find out more. I'm also teaching this workshop in Boston at Grub Street on April 21 (link is
Creating Pause in Your Action--When and How to Let the Reader Linger without Losing Momentum
A blog reader sent in this fascinating question:
How can "event writers" develop stationary moments in their narrative and sections in their books where the main characters reflect on the meaning of what happens? What's the purpose of this, and what's is benefit to the story?
This is a question about pacing, but it also hints at our natural preferences as writers, to write certain kinds of scenes.
Some writers enter their writing via reflection--the meaning of a situation or memory. Reflective writers write meaning first, then translate it into action. Some writers enter via image or setting. If you're one, you think first about where the story is happening and you love the details of place. The third group, event writers, prefer to have things moving forward. They think action first, and they may get impatient with too much (to them) description.
None of these is stronger or better or worse; all are needed. It's just where we naturally like to start.
Back to my reader's question. Stationary moments are the domain of reflection or image writers, and they would almost scoff at the question: what is the benefit to the story. The benefit is that the reader gets to absorb meaning. What is a story without meaning? It's all momentum. It leaves you breathless, charged up, but possibly without a clue as to the purpose of what you just read.
It also creates a dense feel to the writing, which I addressed in a earlier blog this year (scroll down). Counter intuitive to say that too many events create dense writing, I know--but that's how readers perceive it. So meaning, or pauses, are the places we catch our breath and think about the purpose or meaning of what we just read.
How does an event writer, who prefers not to pause, put in pauses? First, it requires an awareness of the benefit of pauses, so the best first step is to find a book you love, preferably in a genre similar to the one you're writing, and comb through a chapter for pauses. If it's a skilled writer, it'll take some work to see the pauses. Look for something called "beats" in screenwriting, or breaks in the action or dialogue--gestures, movements, a glance out the window, a brief flashback, a bit of setting. They don't have to be long but they allow just that moment to regroup and absorb that a reader needed. Notice how often these appear, how long they are, where they are placed.
Then go to a chapter of your own and model the writer you just read--their structure of pauses. You would use your own words, your own story, but mimic the placement of each beat and what is included. For instance, if the writer uses two lines of backstory just there, you do the same. If they use a gesture or movement in another place, do it too. Use your words, their structure.
This modeling exercise is a great way to get muscle memory of pacing, as well as the benefit of pauses or stationary moments. Try it this week, as your weekly writing exercise.
Winding Up for the Pitch--How to Craft a Winning Query Letter
Several of my private clients are completing their manuscripts this month, getting ready to pitch to agents at one of the large writing conferences happening in April: The Loft Literary Center's Pitch Conference, April 20-21, in Minneapolis, and Grub Street's The Muse and the Marketplace, April 6-8, in Boston.
Writers can meet with agents and "pitch" their book--or give a short description designed to spark an agent's interest. Some pitch sessions permit a written query letter and sample of your writing, others just allow you to pitch verbally.
Most writers agree that crafting a winning query letter is all important. Even if your pitch is verbal, the query can help you figure out how best to describe your book in a unique, interesting way. Agents often receive hundreds of these a week. How do you make sure that yours stands out?
One of my clients forwarded me
this excellent article
from Sarah Jane Freymann's agency. "The Perfect Pitch," it's called, and it's worth a read--not just to get an insider view on agents and the process of reading queries but also to know what to avoid.
Your weekly writing exercise is to educate yourself--and enjoy the smart writing in this article about crafting queries. Then try one yourself. You may not feel nearly ready to pitch your book, but just the act of writing the hook and other parts of a query can help you focus on what that book is actually about.
And if you're at Grub Street's Muse on Saturday, April 7, stop by my workshop and say hello in person.
How to Choose Good Writing Partners--Making the Process Less Trial-and-Error
They say it takes a lot of support to write a book--the process is long, hard, and personal for most writers. We need encouraging words and people who believe in what we're doing, so we can keep doing it when the journey feels useless. I know most writers who complete books gather a team of supporters by the end. Supporters like writing groups, writing partners, or hired editors/coaches. I don't know many who get published without this kind of backup.
Recently I taught a week-long writing retreat in Tucson and two of the participants were returnees from last year. Between then and now, they had been accountability partners via email, logging their progress with each other each week. Not exchanging writing, but keeping each other on task via encouragement and support. Another writer in the retreat talked about her two writing groups, formed after taking online classes--she had found a small circle of support that kept exchanging after the class was over. Not surprising that all three of these writers were still moving forward with their books. They'd found the secret of good writing partners.
Others aren't so lucky. Even excellent writers, even published writers, can inadvertently fall victim to unkind feedback.
One of my past students joined a writing group where an unknown writer was keen on giving feedback. The exchange looked promising, but the reader was of the slash-and-burn mentality, so even this skilled, experienced writer felt "yucky" afterwards. She's strong enough not to stop her project, but I've heard stories of one bad feedback exchange devastating someone enough to quit their book. That's a shame, and it's not necessary. But unfortunately, this happens more often than not.
A bad feedback exchange is NOT a reflection of the value of your book. Many times it's a marker of poor communication skills, or training that leans towards critical rather than supportive.
In my book, Your Book Starts Here, I devote a whole chapter to getting and giving feedback. Since support is essential, it's also essential to know how to take care of yourself and your book idea or manuscript, as it gets ready to be born.
But how does a writer find a safe home for their work, at any stage? Here are some tips from successful partnerships forged by students in my past classes. They might be helpful to you, too, if you're looking for a writing partner.
1. Most said that the safest way to find writing partners is through online classes, where you can test out feedback skills in a moderated environment. The teacher makes sure folks are kind to each other. You get to see how the other writers respond. Eliminate the ones who simply parrot the teacher's remarks, or say they just love the piece but have nothing more to add. Also avoid those who give only "surface" feedback--spelling errors, for instance. That's proofreader stuff and not necessary until you're about to submit to agents.
Look for those who share original, helpful comments that make you think. The comments might sting a little, but they don't flatten you. Often, the best comments are in the form of questions--that's the mark of a really superior reader, in my experience. Questions open doorways for the writer.
2. Look, also, for gratitude in the partnership. If a writer in one of my classes receives but doesn't thank the people who give her feedback, it doesn't bode well for future writing partnerships. Partners who are good bets long term are usually very aware of and grateful for feedback. They know how valuable it is!
3. Look for consistency. Does the writer post regularly? Are they moving forward on their book, steadily? This is sometimes harder to assess, since some people in classes can show up to please or impress the teacher, not for themselves or their books. Some writers also feel more comfortable giving feedback than sharing their own writing--another danger sign. You want someone who posts their own work as often as they comment on others' work.
4. Always vet the partner with a sample before you begin. Even if you know each other from class, share only a little outside, at first. See how it goes. Be prepared to say no thanks. You HAVE to safeguard your work, no one else will do it for you, and you have the right to first refusal, even if it means making up something like, "Got suddenly busy, have to pass, but wish you the best!"
5. Don't ask too much in the beginning. If you're used to inline comments from class, you may need to start private partnerships with something easier. People don't always understand how much time a regular exchange takes, and it can be harder to maintain without a class structure. You want this partner for the long haul, not a short flash.
Writing Amazing, Authentic Dialogue--Hard to Learn, Vital to Know
Writing dialogue should be easy, right? Most of us talk. We text, we email, we use words in conversation all the time. We listen (sometimes) to other people talking. Dialogue runs through our thoughts all day, every day. So why isn't dialogue on the page just a matter of listening well and copying down what we hear?
Literature has different rules than real life--obviously. So dialogue on the page also has different rules than spoken dialogue.
It makes sense. What we read must present high stakes, tension, and not give it all away--otherwise, why would we keep reading?
Next week, I'm teaching an eight-week online class on writing authentic, amazing dialogue for fiction and memoir. The class was born from a one-day workshop, which often left writers wanting more. They understood the basic tenets of writing good dialogue but they wanted to practice, get feedback, and get better at it. So the online class will cover both the mechanics of dialogue--how dialogue is created, crafted, and used; when it's not used (there are real rules about this!) and when it's most effective in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction books--and placement.
Placement of dialogue is important. Dialogue speeds up your story's pace. It's faster than description, for instance. But too much dialogue in a chunk creates the fast-train-ride that you may not want just then. So dialogue needs to become a conscious tool in the writer's hands.
This week, I wanted to share one of the writing exercises we'll be using in the class. It helps tune your ear to the essential difference between real-life spoken dialogue and dialogue on the page. It also trains you to hear subtext, then begin to use it effectively in your own writing.
Listening for Subtext
In real conversations, subtext, or undercurrent, what's not being said, the meaning or emotion underlying the talk, is presented by visual aids: gestures, a facial expression, looking away or down, movement. It's also revealed via the setting around the conversation.
Imagine a bad date. One person is eager, the other totally turned off. Although the conversation itself, the stripped-down dialogue, might stay polite, even pleasant, there are all kinds of visual cues as to what's really happening, right?
In writing, you don't have these visual cues. You have to create them on the page. You can use all the same tools (gestures, etc.), but even more important are the actual words you use in your dialogue. So there are two steps: learning to hear and see subtext in real conversations, so you get good at noticing this undercurrent, then learning to craft your dialogue so it's evident on the page.
Here's one small example out of many of the craft skills you need: Placing the reveal. What's a reveal? In dialogue, it's where people say what they really mean. If you "reveal" too soon in your written dialogue, or say too much true stuff, you lose tension. Why? Because there's no subtext. So "reveal" dialogue (where people really say what they mean) is reserved for special times in the written dialogue scene.
Another example of a craft skill we'll learn and practice: Writing in "beats." Beats are where people pause, interrupt, or change the subject. That's increasing subtext, because it signifies an emotional shift. Maybe the topic is getting too hot and the speaker shifts away from it abruptly. Ever have this happen in a real-life conversation? It's used a lot by novelists and memoirists to show the subtext. But where you place a beat is the key to making it work.
In early drafts of a scene, we often work with the just obvious level: text. We're still telling ourselves the story, rather than bringing in the subtle layers. We're writing close to real-life conversation, which is what most writers begin with. There are few beats and the dialogue will often contain too much "revealed" information, at that early stage.
In revision, we begin to craft it. We get more subtle and we look at placement for the "reveal."
I find it's helpful during this crafting stage to find a published book or story in your genre. Turn to a page or two of dialogue that you admire. Study where the "reveal" is placed, how much subtext you perceive, what kind of beats are present and where. What's the placement of this dialogue in the overall chapter?
It helps you build your listening and writing skills, but it takes time and practice. Try it more than once, if you can.
Your dialogue will begin to explore what's not being said--and that's where the true literary conversations take place.
If you want to try one of the online class exercises, I'll include it below. It's an eavesdropping exercise that tunes your ear and eye to subtext.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Find a busy place to sit for a while with your writer's notebook and take notes. Cafes are good. Or bus stations or doctor's offices or airports.
2. Eavesdrop. Take notes on how people talk. Write down all the jigs and jags of human speech.
3. Pay attention to the rhythms you're hearing, how many times people interrupt or talk around the topic or use partial sentences.
4. After an hour or so, or however much time you can spend, take what you've written and read it over. Underline the best three lines, the ones that speak about something that not's being said.
5. Using one of these, begin a freewrite for 20 minutes (no editing) for a scene from your book. Write the overheard line of dialogue at the top of your page and start adding responses until you've crafted a conversation.
6. Look it over. Decide what's not being said (the subtext). Is it a strong current under your characters' words?
And if you'd like to find out more about my online dialogue class, click here to be taken to the Loft's website.
How Do I Know When I'm Done? Five Stages of Writing a Book
A past student from my Madeline Island retreats emailed me recently with a great question. It's one most writers struggle with: How do I know when my book is actually finished? "An overarching question I find more difficult," she says, "is whether it could ever be ready. Some things may not be worth the effort or the money. Is it better to pay someone willing to say yea or nay first or does that have to go together with sending it out for paid editing?"
There are five stages to writing a book, from seed idea to final revision before publication. I think of them as gateways to the process. If a writer can go through all of them, the book is probably ready to submit. If you get stalled at any, know that you're not alone--I estimate only a third of writers who start book projects actually complete them. But it helps to know where you are in the journey, so you can intelligently choose whether to go on.
1. Gathering stage: When you start a book, you have an idea. You sketch out chapters, or scenes. You research. You freewrite. You do a rough storyboard, if you're into structure like I am (saving tons of time). You may outline instead, or in addition to the storyboarding. This is only a gathering stage, but it's essential to the process. It allows you to explore, to really decide if you have enough for a whole book (maybe the idea is just a short story or essay or article). A big gateway exists after the gathering stage, and not many writers make it through. Structuring shows you whether you have a book--or not. And some of us would rather not know.
2. Structuring stage: At critical mass moment, when your gathered material becomes overwhelming, you either learn to structure or you hire an editor to help you see through the morass. This is often when writers come to my class, Your Book Starts Here (online starts February 14, in-person workshop on March 30, if you're intrigued). Or they hire me to help them privately. This is what editors at publishing houses used to do, back when I began publishing. It's what takes your writing, however good, into a logical shape that a reader can follow.
3. First draft: Once the material is shaped, you create your first draft. Some writers do a draft before structuring, which is fine--as long as they know it's basically going to be a freewrite until it's structured for a reader's viewpoint. I usually structure, or at least attempt to, first, to save time. I've worked with hundreds of writers, some well published already, who don't know this. (I don't blame them--we're not taught structuring in MFA programs or writing classes, normally. It's the editor's domain.) Your first draft should be about 60,000-90,000 words, depending on your genre. It should have cohesive chapters.
4. Revision: There's a huge gateway here too, probably the biggest and hardest one. Most writers aren't trained in revision. They need to hire an editor or coach to help them. Revision is a LOT more than just refining sentences. It double-checks your structure on three levels: outer story (plot or information), characters' narrative arcs, and the sense of place. You may be good at one or two of these, weak at the third. Even though I've worked as an editor since the eighties, I still hire out revision help. It costs too. What you're looking for is a careful read-through, structure analysis (if you can get it), and suggestions for revising those three areas. Your editor might come back with suggestions like: (1) your plot falls apart in chapter 15; (2) I don't believe this character's motivation; or (3) I don't know where we are in time or place--your setting is not anchored yet. These are hard to hear! I know, I've been there for every book I've written. Editors are gold, though, because they see what you can't see.
Many writers take an intermediary step before hiring an editor. They attend classes on revision, to learn the basics. Downside of most classes at revision stage is that you workshop only part of your manuscript at a time--a chapter, say. If you go for a class at revision stage, try for one like Grub Street's Novel Incubator or Memoir Incubator (not quite revision stage, for many, but still helpful from a whole-book perspective), or the Loft's Year-Long Writing Projects. Classes do help hone individual skills, like dialogue or setting or character motivation. But don't expect whole-manuscript help from a class. Nobody is paid that much!
Other writers use writers' groups for this stage. They are great, and I've used them too. Again, you rarely get whole-manuscript revision help, since your group mates read only chapters or scenes each time. You can, however, make great writing connections in groups and classes, and from these, if you're lucky, come beta readers. I coined that name, which means an early tester of your whole manuscript. Beta readers are helpful in ways that writers groups and classes can't be. You exchange manuscripts with them. I always go through this step with my own manuscripts before hiring an editor; beta readers often catch problems I can fix before I spend money.
Revision can take years. At some point, like the student who emailed me above, you have to decide if you're going to take the manuscript one more step, into submission. You may not be sure, which is why I recommend both beta readers and a paid editor who will help you with structure and whole-manuscript review in the three categories mentioned above.
A world about magical thinking: Many writers, especially first-time book writers, believe that an agent will help them with this stage. That used to be true--when I first was publishing in the eighties, my agent did just that: take fairly unformed material and help shape it. Also, the publisher's editors did this job. No longer true. Agents won't even glance at your manuscript unless you've done your utmost to get revision help. One agent I know gets 400 submissions a week. Unless the writing is tight, bright, and clean, it doesn't even get past her assistant's desk. Don't count on an agent to bail you out.
5. Submission: Why do writers decide to submit to agents or publishers? It's the toughest gateway of all. Maybe you want validation that the book works and someone else can see your genius. Maybe you desire fame and fortune. (I'm laughing a little at that one, because although I've published thirteen books, I've never made a living from any of them. The advances were good for some, but not living-worth. I won awards but I didn't get famous.) Mostly, the reason I go through the agony of submitting my manuscript to agents and publishers is that I believe in the book. I want it out there, in readers' hands, helping and inspiring others. This has been my go-to reason for every book I've published.
I also want the book to be the absolute best it can be, before I start this process, because it's a glorious feeling to read one of your published books, ten years later, and still love it. So loving your book, given the incredibly tough publishing industry right now, might be s the most valid reason to approach this final gateway.
Many writers, even well-published ones, are looking at self-publishing or partner publishing now, instead of traditional publishing, and using a publicist to help market the book. This is less painful. It requires an investment of money and time and energy. But so does traditional publishing, these days. You'll be spending your own energy to get your book read, no matter which avenue you choose.
But bottom line: Is the story worth it, to you? There's an axiom in writing circles about the first book being the one that you learn on. I understand this, because you might get to this fifth stage and decide, No, it's not worth the energy, the rejection, the cost. That's fine. You've learned a lot, you've come far. But it's a very individual choice, not one another can make for you--not even all the agents you query that say no thank you. Because agents aren't the final word as to whether your work is worthwhile. You are.
I guess this would be my answer to the student who wrote me asking how to know if you're done. Is the book something you'd like out there, in readers' hands, as it is now? Would you be proud of it in ten years, if it were published? If not, then scroll back to earlier steps and ask yourself which would be logical to consider. Which you may have skipped over, telling yourself you didn't need it. Or consider this book is your learning curve and you learned a lot. And now you can move on to the next project.
The road to writing a book demands the same kind of--or more--belief in yourself and your purpose than a triathlete training for a race or an entrepreneur starting a business. Books aren't easy to write, revise, and publish. they'll take everything you got. But they give back in many ways--the joy of achieving a dream, the light in a reader's face as she tells you how she stayed up all night, reading your book.
If you accomplish any of the stages listed above, congratulate yourself. You've achieved something that few writers have. Consider the next stage, what skills or stamina or tools you need to approach it. Consider your belief in your book--is it strong enough to carry you through?
Walking--Why It Helps Me Write My Books
Not everyone will agree with this post, so skip it if you already know it's not your thing. Walking has saved my writing life this week. Even though I live in snow country, northern New England, and we've been hit with a series of snowstorms these past weeks, I have to walk. It keeps me sane when I'm working out a gnarly problem with a story.
Julia Cameron made a big deal of walking in her sequels to The Artist's Way, which many of you read, as I did, to recover our blocked inner artist. I thought, yeah, OK, when I first saw "daily walk" up there with "morning pages" and "artist's date." I liked to walk, but not every day and certainly not as part of my writing routine.
These past months have changed my mind.
I've been preparing my manuscript for an editor. Finding problems, large and small, embarrassing and must-be-fixed, and getting excellent questions to ponder. Problem is, I can't easily ponder at my desk. When I'm at my desk, I write, revise, research. I need to get away from the desk to think.
Add to that some family issues (elderly mom, young adult son) that arose this week, which were equally gnarly, which distracted me from the creative flow, to put it mildly. After an hour of teeth gnashing and too many snacks, I threw on my down jacket and put Yak-Traks (netted metal grippers) on my walking shoes and went outside.
For about a mile, I just stomped. Anger and frustration over life and writing pushed me up the country road by our house, which is mostly uphill. When I reached level ground, I began walking faster. The Yak-Traks kept me from sliding on the snow pack left by the plows and I didn't have to watch my step. It took another mile before I stopped being mad, before the cold air and stretches of snow-covered farm fields and woods calmed me down. By the time I reached my turn-around point, I had my first solution to the writing problem (family problems take longer). By the time I got back home, I felt completely ready to start up again.
That afternoon's writing went very smoothly. Surprisingly so. I sent the chapter off to my editor and felt great about it. I didn't attribute it to the walk, not that day. But when it kept happening, I caught on.
Those of you who run regularly, who work out, who garden, who kayak, who do any kind of sport or activity that lets the mind rest, know what I'm talking about. It doesn't have to be walking. It just has to be something that gets you out of your own way, which usually means getting you out of your head long enough to refresh the inner screen. I imagine it gets jammed up like my browser does, loading old ideas and images, and it needs to be refreshed. The mindless movement does that.
A tiny bow of gratitude to Julia, who first introduced the idea to this reluctant receiver. Now I'm a convert. I write, I walk, then I can write again.
Your weekly writing exercise is to notice your rhythm. Do you hit a wall and keep pushing, because you think you should? Because some writing teacher or friend said you were (1) lazy, (2) procrastinating, or (3) not a real writer if you took a break? Because you are afraid you won't get going again if you stop? How has this worked for you? If it hasn't, consider a mindless movement activity. Try a walk.
And if you live in snow country, make sure you bring those Yak-Traks.
Refueling Your Creativity--How to Plan in Recovery Time as You Write (and Finish) Your Book
Two of my private clients just completed their books. A time for celebration, since they both worked extremely hard for the past year or more. One of them, a first-time novelist, wrote me this week about how stunned she feels and how little creativity she can muster in other areas of her life. She's a parent, great cook, and gardener, but nothing is feeling charged with energy at the moment.
She's happy her book is done--at last!--but worries about her lack of umph. Is this normal? Shouldn't she be gung-ho on the next project, so as not to lose momentum?
I don't know many writers who feel charged with energy when the manuscript is finally completed. They're excited, yes. It's been a long hard road (very few writers find book-writing easy) and to reach the end is a thrill. But it's also like running a marathon or sailing across the ocean. You've used a lot of resources to reach this point. It's time to recharge.
One of my colleagues, who publishes well and often, shares a trick: she always starts another project, be it book or other creative venture, before she finishes the current one. She has this other idea simmering, maybe some notes started, maybe even a couple of chapters sketched out, so it can welcome her and remind her she's not entirely used up.
I liked this idea and, typical of me, when I tested it, I pushed it to the limit. Around 2009, I was working on two books simultaneously. One fiction, one nonfiction, but both requiring a LOT of energy. I liked toggling back and forth--when I got stuck on one, I moved to the other--and I began to think of it as creative multi-tasking. But it drained me. Then I tried starting another book while my current one was cooking. This was fueled by agent interest, but it also became hard to maintain, creatively. I got confused between the two stories and the different characters overlapped in my head. I stopped the new book and just focused on finishing the current one.
I guess it depends on how you're wired. Also, what else is going on with your life. I was raising a teenager at the time, and anyone who's lived with teens knows what that means. Enough said. I just didn't have the resources to multitask in my creative life.
Now, I know to honor the process of generating a story, what it requires from the creative self. When one book is wrapping up--or when you've worked hard to learn a new skill, like how to write dialogue or how to bring a character's voice alive on the page, you might find yourself needing recovery time. Maybe it serves you to push through, to start the next project immediately. For me, the writing comes forward again only when I allow my imagination to rest.
I need to daydream and dream. I need to read great literature (and trashy novels too). I need to play music, start seeds under my grow lights, cook something wonderful, take long walks or snowshoe in our back fields, have good conversations. After I've done enough recovery, I notice a restlessness comes in--a sense of curiosity about words, ideas, images. I might be reading something and get a flash of a story I could write. This tells me it's time to get back to the page.
I also recommend reading books on the creative process. Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic is a favorite. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, oldie but goodie. These will usually get me excited, ready to work.
The creative faucet is turned on, the pump is primed, and there's water flowing again.
This week, pay attention to your creative process. What stage are you in, right now, with your writing, your book? Are you full of energy? Are you restless, needing inspiration or new skills or feedback in a new way? Are you depleted, needing recovery time? Part of the maturation of a creative soul is the ability to pay attention to the natural cycle of creativity. It just takes tuning in to yourself and honoring what's best for you.
If It Doesn't Further the Conflict, Should You Leave It Out?
A writer who attended my retreat/workshop in Tucson recently emailed me with a great question. It addresses an important choice that writers face every time they work on their books: what to include and what to omit.
She asked: "What happens when there is an event or narrative that reflects my theme but doesn't have enough conflict to carry the story forward. Should I exclude it?" For example, if a character supported the narrator in her journey, but there was no conflict involved, should this character be part of the book?
If I can rephrase her question in my own words, based on my own experience and those of many of my clients: How do you decide what is for you, and what is for the book?
Early drafts and revisions of manuscripts are all about discovering the story. What do we want to say, how is it best said? We figure out the flow of scenes or islands, and eventually we build chapters. It's normal in first drafts to need about 90,000 words (or more) because we know we'll be editing that down as we revise. First drafts of manuscripts are often bloated with stuff we end up discarding. Maybe it appealed to us early on but as we get clearer about the book, we learn what's not needed.
In the beginning, though, we don't know this. We are gathering people, events, and experiences to make our scenes, islands, chapters. I find it's counterproductive in those early drafts (say, the first five or so) to eliminate a lot of material because you think it's not relevant. That's dangerous because your view of the story is still limited. In my experience, it's only after several drafts that a writer really gets the sense of the story. I've learned the hard way not to discard, or edit down, too early. If you try to make the manuscript too perfect in early drafts, you won't surprise yourself. And if you aren't surprised, the reader will never be.
Once you have drafted enough, revised a couple of times, and have a reasonable manuscript that flows pretty well, you can begin to look at each scene for whether it furthers the story. This is bloat-trimming, and it has to be done. (But again, not too early, or you'll end up with very little unexpected beauty.) Some writing teachers use this formula to help trim bloat: if it doesn't further the conflict, jettison it. I use this formula in my own writing, and it works well for a while.
So we've talked about two stages of drafting: the early draft, which includes more than you need, and the bloat-trimming stage which begins to examine the purpose of each scene or section. No longer are you keeping a scene because it means a lot to you. It has to mean something to the reader too.
In this second stage, you look at each of your choices. You use the formula that the guys who created South Park suggest: rather than this, then that, try looking at each scene for its effect on other scenes. This because of that. It makes a world of difference. If a scene doesn't cause an effect, in some way, it's not useful to the story. Stories are built on cause and effect.
I've learned this the hard way in my own writing. I enjoy the gathering stage, which is like making a huge Saturday-morning soup from all the leftovers in the fridge. I can make a pretty delicious soup. But I might make a better soup without quite as many ingredients. It's hard to remove items from a soup pot but a manuscript is malleable. You can go through and pull things out if you have enough (1) overview and (2) detachment from your own words.
But I've also learned there's a third stage, and this answers my student's question.
Once I've triaged based on conflict potential, I have to look deeper. Beyond asking, Does this person or event further the conflict? I must also ask, Does this person or event help the reader understand the why behind the actions, decisions, motivations of the narrator?
Increasingly, in my own writing, this why is most important to making the writing compelling, allowing the characters to stick with a reader, allowing the plot to be believable.
You will do what you want, in terms of how you draft and revise. But just consider these three stages. They might help you avoid some heartache as you build your book. Give yourself time and space to make a big soup that has everything in it--that's a legitimate stage one. Don't refine too soon, before you've got enough material in place. You'll end up not being surprised. Then, when you're ready to move to stage two, consider the effect of each scene--not just its conflict-furthering potential, but also whether it causes something to happen that's not about conflict. And finally, enjoy stage three, which is the most fun. Below is a writing exercise to tap into the excitement of stage three, if you're interested.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
I ask most of my private clients to do this exercise because it's a great way to start looking at the why of each person in your story. Including yourself, if you are the narrator.
It's pretty simple: write a bio of each important person in your story. A resume, a history. Made up or real (depending on genre).
Then go through an underline the turning points, those moments in a person's life that shape their beliefs or misunderstandings about themselves and the world. These are the components of why. They may not always include conflict. They might be a moment of witnessing something, overhearing something, losing something, remembering something.
Writing the bio will bring them to your awareness, allow you to select what to include.
Three Ways to Help Your New Year's Writing Resolutions Actually Happen
I'm not a huge fan of New Year's resolutions, especially when it comes to my writing goals. But I do appreciate making time for a pause to review what I've accomplished in the past year and imagine what I'd like to bring into the new one. It's more of a visioning moment than setting firm goals, because I know (oh so well!) how my goals can morph as the year goes forward. And I only know what I can see from this moment. But I've used three methods to help myself create realistic goals for my new writing year, based on what I learned from the previous twelve months.
Here' s a short writing exercise to try this week, if you want to reflect and plan intelligently, in a way that acknowledges your particular creativity.
1. Thinking back on 2017, write down three highlights in your writing life. These could be new ideas you explored, insights about your writing, a new skill, an exceptional community experience (like a great class or writing group). Describe them in a few sentences.
For me, they would be:
* I received excellent feedback from my writing coach and mentor.
* I finally understand the deeper motivation of one of my trickier characters.
* Through a writing friend, I found a next step for 2018 that looks promising.
These highlights should make you feel great, as you review them. They can be large or small, specific or general.
2. What big obstacle or challenge happened in your 2017 writing life that turned out to bring you an unexpected new direction or insight?
For me, this would be:
* A friend referred me to a coach (someone whose books I love) and I signed up for a phone consult. Although I got great information, the coach's teaching style was very hard on my spirits. The call left me depressed for a week. I remember feeling this same way when I signed up for riding lessons with a teacher I now think of as the "horse Nazi." The call taught me that just because a teacher has great information, their teaching style might not be what I need. It also led to an unexpected new direction: another publisher writer, who also knew this coach, told me about a different teacher whose information is just as good but teaches in an affirming style that fits for me, keeping my spirits up. So far, the new exchange has benefited me enormously. I wouldn't have gotten there without the bad experience.
3. Looking ahead, write three things you know you need next. Rather than focusing on achievements or successes, which are the outer elements of a writing life, look for specific qualities that could improve your writing life this year. For example, a certain area that needs skill-building, a system for getting regular feedback, someone who can support you through your next learning curve (coach, class, teacher), an opportunity for and courage to take a new risk (especially helpful if you're bored with what you're creating right now).
For me, this would be:
* Going back to my favorite rhythm of writing first for an hour each day, before I start my work day.
* Taking the risk to sketch out the synopsis for my next novel and get feedback on it.
* Joining an online class.
Happy new year! All good wishes for your writing life in 2018.
Becoming a Marketing Machine--What It Takes to Promote Your Book
It's hard for writers to hear this: writing your book isn't your only job in becoming an author.
Once you've completed your manuscript, put it through revision, secured an agent or not, and sold it to a publisher, maybe you think you can relax back and let everyone else handle the nasty details of getting it into readers' hands. When I began publishing in the eighties, that was the case. But it's not true anymore. Now writers need to learn all about marketing and promotion. It's part of being an author.
Some writers excel at this, whether from natural skills or inclination. I was never good at it--I had to learn it the hard way when the publishing industry switched from giving a writer publicity funds and support, the "we'll take care of everything" line on your contract, to "what will you do to sell your book?" I had to hire people (publicists) to help me. I had to learn how to get blurbs, get reviews, appear at book signings and on television and radio interviews. When the internet became the best method to promote anything, I had to get up to speed on social media and online book review sites (Goodreads, Shelfari). None of it was fun for me, a natural introvert who just wants to write. But I knew it was the only way my books would get in readers' hands.
This week, I wanted to talk with a writer whose book, You'll Like It Here, was his publisher's top seller after it launched in November 2016. Ed Orzechowski believed in his story so much, he became a marketing machine. He detailed what he did and I was impressed by all his efforts. You may not want to do this much for your books, but perhaps Ed's plan will give you some ideas about what you could try.
It helps to know that Ed's book is about Donald Vitkus, patient at the infamous Belchertown State School in Massachusetts. Ed wanted Donald's story to be heard. So here's a list of what he did:
1. Before publication, Ed secured blurbs from the federal judge who had heard the class action lawsuit about conditions at Belchertown State School, and from an advocacy group. The writer for the organization wrote a review for its blog.
2. A month before the launch, Ed posted a "Coming Soon," announcement on his home Facebook page. At that point, he didn't yet have a separate Facebook page for the book.
3. He also began building his website through GoDaddy (a learning curve, he says), and once the site was up, he posted an announcement about the new website on Facebook as well.
4. Prior to the launch, Ed's publisher, Levellers Press, created a Facebook Event (Ed says he didn't even know what one was) to announce the upcoming launch. Steve Strimer, who heads Levellers, booked a local hall. Ed emailed everyone in his address book: family and friends (Donald's wife Pat did the same); people he knew from teaching, including faculty and students; members of the developmental disability advocacy organizations that Ed's wife and he belong to, local, state and national; a couple of writers' groups; all the media contacts he had through freelancing; his high school Class of 1963 (he had the list from being on reunion committees). The result was a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 200, the biggest launch Levellers ever had.
5. From day one, Ed's book has been featured on the Levellers Press website. Steve arranged for a small book blurb in
The Daily Hampshire Gazette's weekend magazine, and an interview on a local morning radio show. He also placed Ed's book with Broadside Books, an independent bookstore in Northampton, and in the two copy shops he operates. Several months later, he put it on Amazon, and a few months after that, as an e-book, too. Ed established an Amazon author page, and about a dozen readers posted reviews. Levellers supplied him with business cards, bookmarks, a table display poster, and promotional book copies.
6. Ed's former editor (from his freelance journalism days) arranged for a sizeable piece in
The Springfield Republican. Ed sent releases to a regional weekly, and they did articles. A reporter for the senior center's newspaper did a piece, plus another one for a regional arts magazine.
7. Ed sent news releases to New England Public Radio and WGBY (PBS) in Springfield, and they responded with significant interviews. Donald and Ed were also interviewed for a half-hour program on the Upton Public Access channel.
8. Ed sent announcements to a few local libraries, who invited him to do book events. He says "I discovered that librarians are hungry for local author events," and word started to spread. Librarians began contacting him, which he never expected. Some have paid for travel and even provided stipends. He's presented at 16 libraries now, and many of the small towns had the best turnout and participation. The Central and Western Massachusetts library consortium now lists 33 copies of his book in circulation, with several currently on hold. "Hard for me to believe," Ed says.
9. He did a book giveaway on Goodreads.
10. He only did one reading in a bookstore (not Broadside), and it was well attended. He sold a number of books at the event and later on consignment, but the profit is marginal. He also did more focused readings for book groups, historical, and support organizations for parents of children with developmental disabilities, which are the most satisfying.
11. He participated in writers' panels at three western Massachusetts colleges, and began reaching out to colleges that offer human service and psychology programs, mostly word of mouth, but he plans to do an e-mailing. He says, "I would love to have Donald's story incorporated into college course reading lists, maybe even high schools. One of my former students, who now teaches high school herself in New Hampshire, has used my book for a summer reading program."
12. He developed a PowerPoint presentation to accompany his readings, with photos of the institution, Donald, and records. He teamed up with a local photographer for an event at Historic Northampton, who exhibited his photos of the former Northampton State Hospital, and Ed discussed Belchertown State School.
Ed says, "Until a couple of months ago when his health no longer allowed it, Donald always appeared with me, both to speak and sign books. He was always a big hit. People who have attended our readings and signings often have some tie with developmental disabilities or former institutions. They have intellectually disabled children, know someone else who does, or they've worked or volunteered with this population."
13. Since the launch, he's done about 40 events promoted on his website, home Facebook page,
You'll Like It Here Facebook page, and Advocacy Network's page. Ed's website has Facebook and Twitter links, and an email to contact him.
Ed says, "I've found that one event leads to another. Someone who comes to a library reading invites me to a book club, organization, etc. It's amazing to me that, after the ball got rolling, people started to seek me out."
Why do all this? Of course, to get your book out there. But also for the amazing experience of someone coming up to you at a library event or bookstore and telling you how much they loved your story.
So if you're still writing your book, it does help to begin noticing this other task for would-be authors.
You may not tackle it as Ed did, but you might. And if you haven't already checked out his book, or want a gift for someone interested in social justice, click here for more information.
Writing about Sex, Intimacy, and Other Dangers
Sex is hard to write about. I've written two sex scenes in my life so I'm no expert, but I found each extraordinarily difficult. The main challenge was not any reservations about including sex scenes in my fiction but how to make them reveal more about character than the character's actions. That's my personal preference as a reader, as well as a writer, and it may not be yours. You may be a Fifty Shades of Gray kind of writer and reader, and more power to you. But I wanted to address the topic, especially after a coaching client sent me this email.
She was reading through
her first novel's rough draft, preparing it to send me for feedback. She came across intimate scenes (her words) that she'd written about the character on her honeymoon, and she had some concern about how they read. "Too graphic," she said. "A bit much for me."
She wondered about how to craft scenes that are intimate but leave something unspoken, that kept the mystery in. She wanted to reveal more of the character affected by sex and intimacy than about the act.
In most characters' lives, sex is a dangerous act. It might be a way for a character trying to prove her coolness or it might be from numbness to the effect or it might be for power. There's usually an effect from it--at least in literature, if not in life. Effect on character moves a scene from graphic to literary, where scenes of intimacy or eroticism that have more to do with the human being experiencing it and living with its aftereffect than the mechanics.
Writing sex scenes brings up our own awkwardness with the topic. I know many writers who can kill characters much more easily than put them naked on the page. Sex is loaded, whether from our history, culture, or personal preferences. It's not easy to write any kind of good sex scene, no matter whether explicit or subtle.
Totally your choice, whether to include it in your book, of course, but if you do, study up. Research: How do expert writers write sex and intimacy scenes? How much do they veer towards the specifics? Do they use names for body parts or just allude to them? Do they show all the steps?
And most important, at least to many readers, what does it all mean, in the end? It is about power, love, healing? Is it the sex only, or is it about the tension between two characters before and after, the disappointment or joy? What's the point of the sex scene?
This week I had the pleasure of researching a bit on my own. So many great articles, arguments, and examples of writing exist online, so this week, I'll share three favorites.
(The Best Literary Writing about Sex): Great excerpts from the likes of Eileen Myles, Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, and others.
(Five Literary Sex Scenes You Wished You'd Written).
If you're writing YA (young adult), here's an
on sex scenes for younger readers from The Conversation.
Feedback Says My Writing Is "Dense"--What Does This Mean and What Can I Do About It?
A student in my online classes is writing a futuristic thriller about memory loss. I've enjoyed reading her chapters in class and so have her classmates. But recently she emailed me about some feedback she'd received that she didn't understand. She said she couldn't find much information about online, so she was hoping I could help her with what to do with the comments.
Readers have told her that her writing can be dense and hard to get into. As a thriller writer--and someone who is very comfortable with action scenes--this confused her. "For my book to be accessible I want to make it as quick and easy to read as possible," she told me. "I've tried to make it fast paced because that grabs people's attention."
She's also tried to minimize description because, she says, "when it's done poorly it slows people down," and I agree.
So why do some readers say that her writing is dense?
Dense, by the way, doesn't mean stupid, slow, not getting it, or any of the other slurs we might have used (or still use). In writing lingo, it refers to writing that feels thick to the reader, difficult to absorb. Dense writing can appear in a couple of ways.
1. When a piece of writing uses a lot of big words or complicated terms--think legal language or tax forms--it can read "dense" to us. It takes work to figure out what the writer is trying to communicate. I once read an article about what happens in the brain when we repeatedly encounter words we don't know or writing that feels too complex to easily understand or makes us work too hard. The brain literally turns off. It stops absorbing meaning, or even trying to. This can even occur when we're reading and a word pops up that we don't know. Our brains just say, "Nope," and begin right then to disconnect from the emotional impact of the writing. Imagine a whole paragraph like this, or a page or two. Not a pretty sight. This is dense language. Language, or word choice, that feels unnecessarily complex.
One of my students years ago was a published poet. He was trying his first novel. He brought his love for words, especially complicated, poetic words, into his fiction. At first it was interesting. Then he began getting feedback from the class (and me) to ease up on the love of language. Stop trying to make everything beautiful and intense and interesting, and make sure the words he chose actually served the story.
He backed off a bit from the poetry, chose simpler words and structure, and the story blossomed. Once the story was intact and working, he could go back in and add his poetry. It was a big wake-up call for him and changed his writing.
Another way dense writing appears is too packed with events or information in too small a space. One editor I know calls this rat-ta-tat-tat writing. This happens, then this happens, then this happens with nary a pause for a breath. If you write like this, and my student who posed the initial question for this blog article might, your goal is to keep things moving fast. But realize that readers need time to actually "see" what's happening and "feel" the character's reaction.
They need what's called
beats. Beats are the small pauses between events or dialogue lines that allow us to absorb the meaning. Beats are a big part of screenwriting, and novelists and memoirists are learning to use them too. When I add beats, I can do it intuitively, for the most part--although we are all most blind to our own writing. But if I can't, I grab a favorite published book and read a page aloud to get a feel for where those pauses, those beats, occur. Then I read a page of my own writing and see if I can sense where the pauses should occur.
Nonstop action isn't all that fun to read, truthfully. After a while, it's just rat-ta-tat-tat. And who needs that.
2. Dense can also have to do with the visual appearance of paragraphs and sentences on the page. Dense prose means too little white space. Novelist Alexander Chee has a great technique for seeing this: print out a chapter and placing the pages end to end, then squint to see the balance of text and white space.
If you see pages with thick chunks of text, see if you can break them up. Conversely, if there are lots of one-line paragraphs, consider adding beats to create some density.
It all comes down to a perfect balance.
How to Get Enough Distance from Your Story to Actually Write It
In January 2001, physician and writer, Therese Zink, lived through a traumatic experience: While on an international aid mission in Chechnya, her boss was kidnapped. "That experience got me writing," Therese says. "I'd kept a journal since a creative-writing class in high school twenty-some years earlier and dabbled at times with more creative efforts. But after the kidnapping, I had to write."
Little did she know how long it would take her to learn to write and to tell that story.
Even if you know an event in your life will make a great story, to craft a strong story arc (events) as well as narrative arc (growth of narrator), distance from the real-life event is essential. Writers can't get the reader's perspective when they're too caught up in "This really happened!" defenses. It takes time and distance to objectively see what will work and what won't--as well as figure out a way to tell the story so there's universal appeal. Which Therese has done in her new novel, Mission Chechnya.
I met Therese in a book-structuring class I taught at the Loft and had the pleasure of helping her with her manuscript in its early drafts. I've always admired Therese's persistence--how she managed to keep writing despite her demanding full-time job, how she kept the story alive in her mind while she gained enough perspective and distance from it to write it well. Now that Mission Chechnya is published, I wanted to interview her about her particular brand of persistence--since so many writers struggle to find both time and perspective to complete a book that's based on true events.
How did you get this book done? What did it take, specifically?
You've likely heard about Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule--"10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field." That's a full-time job for nearly five years, or part-time for ten. And if you work full-time, like me, the routine of early-morning, twenty- to thirty-minute sessions, and longer weekend or vacation-day efforts too, are important.
There have been disputes about the 10,000 hour rule, but the point I want to make is the importance of showing up, fingers to keyboard, on a regular basis. Some days it was easier to do this, but every effort counted and often my twenty minutes left me with a plot question or a character detail that I would carry with me. The way my subconscious mind works, and probably yours, is that I often stumbled over solutions later that day.
Did you realize you needed support--and training--to write this book?
Writing classes and a community of writers is so important. I had a story to tell, but in order to make it interesting to others, I needed to find the inner story that linked with the greater human dilemmas in life. I took in-person and virtual classes, a number from you, and teachers and classmates helped me understand how to "show, not tell" and how to create interesting characters and the arc of the story. Fellow writers made suggestions about characters, how to phrase something, or a plot twist that were invaluable.
As I became a better writer, I was more able to hear and accept critical feedback. At times, I put the Chechnya story aside and worked on shorter creative nonfiction pieces. I had some success with publications in journals and contests which built my confidence.
Many writers who are working from real life have trouble getting enough distance from their story. How did you gain the necessary distance to write this book?
Initially, my book was a memoir, but I came to understand that it didn't work in that genre. It was too hard to protect my colleagues and myself and create a story arc that kept the reader engaged.
About halfway through my writing efforts, I switched to fiction. At first, it
was tough: I had to continually divorce myself from real-life characters and what really happened, to create a fictional story. It was a process of "killing my darlings" and jettisoning scenes that happened but didn't serve the story. Your class helped boatloads, and feedback from fellow writers and you helped me craft good characters and a page-turning story--I think and hope! I used storyboarding and kept at it. And at it, and at it. Persistence is what mattered in the end.
But even after working hard for quite a while, I realized I still didn't have the characters to tell the story. So I ended up putting the kidnapping story aside to write a different novel. It became the first novel of my international-aid adventure series: The Dr. Ann McLannly Global Health books. Each novel places Ann in a different humanitarian crisis around the world.
As I wrote the first, Mission Rwanda, I worked out Ann's character. Then I could bring her to Mission Chechnya, and with persistence, and feedback from teachers and other students, finally crafted the kidnapping story. As I said, it was much harder to write than I imagined, mostly because I had to let go of scenes and events I was attached to, events that really happened, but did not serve the story.
This book took me seventeen years to write. Even as I write that, I can't believe it. But I persisted, and now it's published.
How does it feel to have it published?
It was a relief to finish the book and incorporate the feedback of my beta-readers, copy editors, etc. As with the first novel, I decided to self-publish given the current dynamics of the publishing world and I was ready to move onto novel three.
Distance helped me craft a better tale and gave me the time I needed to get to know my main character well enough to write a convincing story about what really happened--and how it became fiction.
"Chechnya and Russia are more important on the world stage in 2017 than they were ten years ago," she added. And I agree: It's a timely novel.
If you'd like to read a copy of Therese's novel, click here for more details.
The Magic of Showing Up--How to Design and Commit to a Writing Practice
What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does? A writing practice. Believe it--there's nothing more important. Not talent, not a great idea. It's down to basics: putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.
But we all whine. We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing.
My two-favorite motivational books to keep me writing are Ron Carlson Writes a Story and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. So this week, as a cold hovered and temps dropped outside, I got them out. Each has so much compassion for the distractions a writer must overcome to have a good writing practice and actually finish a book. But they also have enough practical techniques to really use.
Ron Carlson is a prolific short-story writer. If you haven't read "Big Foot Stole My Wife" or other stories by him, do a google search and find them. In his tiny book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he takes us through a day in the life, including all the distractions a person could imagine. It's funny, it's charming, and it's oh-so-true, but each time I read it, I get back in the chair. I'm inspired to write. So it works.
Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic is much less whimsical. Gilbert has produced well in her writing career. She has had huge successes (Eat, Pray, Love) and lesser ones. Gilbert's no stranger to the magic of the Muse, but she defines it differently. She is all about listening. Developing a listening practice, so you hear what to write about. And using what you hear within a rock-solid writing routine.
Gilbert's theory: there are great ideas out there, waiting for writers to receive them. Those who listen, get the idea. But that's only the first step. Once you hear the call, you actually have to write. Regularly. The idea will grow as you do your writing routine. The book will happen.
If you get bored, tired, distracted, the idea will wait around for a while, Gilbert says. But eventually it'll go find someone else to listen. She saw this happen with a great book idea that came to her many years ago.
She was excited, started writing, then dropped it for two years. Not long after, she heard from her friend, the writer Ann Patchett. Patchett was writing a new novel, about the exact same idea. How was that possible? Gilbert had told no one of her book-in-progress. Neither had Patchett. Years had gone by. But there it was.
It convinced Gilbert that ideas wait, latch on, then leave if we are not writing regularly.
Carlson's approach is much more about showing up and doing the work. Less about waiting and more about acting. This appeals to me on days when I'm generally irritated by my writing, by elusive ideas that I can't quite grasp, and by my critical inner voice which questions the worth of any of it. His theory is that if you show up and just begin to write, you'll get there. He encourages me to not make too much of this. It's not a mystery.
I like and use both approaches. But mostly I try to keep a writing practice going.
Here are some
tips I've shared with my classes about finding and sustaining a writing practice. It's gotten me to finish many books:
1. Decide how you're best motivated. Do you work well with deadlines? Do you write better if you know you'll be getting feedback? Do you write because you have something to get out? Do you love crossing "good writing days" off a calendar? What's driving this book? If you can figure that out, use it to keep yourself honest. As a journalist for many decades, I work best with deadlines, so I set up artificial ones with writing partners or by taking classes where I have to produce. Nothing spurs me on faster. But that might not work work you. What keeps you going, despite your doubts or distractions? if you're a time or page writer.
2. Some writers feel successful with their practice if they put in a certain amount of time each day or each writing session. Others don't care about time but require a certain number of words or pages (NaNoWriMo is all about this). Find out what feels satisfying to you. Make a goal that's reasonable, given your life--not wishful thinking. For many years, I wrote five pages a day as my goal. I didn't care about the quality but I felt happy each time I achieved that. Eventually, I had manuscripts.
3. Recognize the value of non-writing or musing time. Something you can do solo and let ideas bubble up. For me, it's a daily walk. I like to walk and think about my story. Often, problems work out. But just getting outside, breathing the air, and moving my body settles me into a rhythm that always helps my writing practice.
4. Life interferes with a writing practice. You get sick, your friend needs help, your kids mess up, work gets crazy. Train yourself not to need absolute quiet or solitude or long uninterrupted periods to do your writing practice. Grab what you can--a commute with a voice memo to record ideas, an hour at a coffee shop on the way home from an appointment, even the middle of the night if you can't sleep. Touch in with the book every day.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you haven't read Big Magic or Ron Carlson Writes a Story, grab a copy and immerse yourself. Then think about the four tips, above. Which one could you test out this week, to refine or start a writing practice that might carry you through winter?
Pros and Cons of Using Past or Present Tense
A blog reader sent me a great question this week: "My writing group discussed present versus past tense when writing memoir. A group member's editor had her switch her present tense chapters to past tense. She had some of each. Are there virtues of each or should memoir always be past tense?"
I get this question a lot in classes, so it's always good to know the pros and cons of using past or present tense.
Just to recap, we're talking about verb tense here.
Past tense sentence: John went to the game and arrived late.
Present tense of the same sentence: John goes to the game and arrives late.
Although it's risky to make such a blanket statement, I'd say that novels and memoirs have been written almost exclusively in past tense for as long as literature has been published. It was the way to write. Then writers, who love to experiment, began writing a little in present tense, here and there. It was different, startling at first to readers. Present tense is TENSE! It's more in your face, more breathless. But so is our world now, so modern literature, both memoir and novels, are written in both past and present tense now.
Are there rules? Not really. Are there effects on both reader and writer? Definitely. It pays to know them, so you can choose consciously.
Past tense disappears; it's so usual, we don't even notice it.
And while present tense is immediate, fast, a little more energetic, in your face, breathless, as said above, it calls attention to itself. Sometimes, it comes across like a "device" the writer is using rather than an integrated part of the story. It's a style, like using no quote marks for dialogue. All styles call attention to themselves and have to serve the story to be justified.
If an editor says, Go back to past tense, it might be for this reason. I'm just guessing because I don't know the manuscript, but that would be one of the concerns I'd have, as an editor. Is present tense serving the story or is it louder than the story?
1. Some writers use present tense as a tool to get immediacy in the story. Like, rewriting a chapter in present tense can give a whole new perspective and more energy if you're stuck. I love using present tense for this reason, but I usually switch back.
2. A friend just got her book accepted--it's very edgy fiction and it's written in present tense. The tense emphasizes the already edgy plot. So it works.
3. Some writers who use flashbacks choose one tense for the main story and the other for the flashback. This is tricky but it's great if you can pull it off.
Mostly, find what works for you. Read writers who write in either tense and see what effect you feel from the writing.
How to Build a Chapter--A Cool New Template to Try for Any Genre
This week I'm teaching on Madeline Island, a beautiful spot on Lake Superior off the shore of northern Wisconsin. Yesterday my class of ten writers explored a new template I've been working with for building chapters. As a review for them and a gift for you, I thought I'd share it.
Many of my book-writing students, as well as private clients, even those already published, struggle with how to build strong chapters. Over the past year, I've been studying different templates for chapter building. Asking myself some hard questions:
1. Do chapters require the same components in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction? 2. What makes a chapter work?
3. What's missing, when it doesn't quite?
Last year, a writing friend introduced me to Shawn Coyne's book,
The Story Grid. Coyne offers a template for suspense novels that helps fill gaps for many writers of that genre (thrillers, domestic suspense, true crime). I worked with it, got a lot of help, then ran into walls. M
y new novel, Outlaws, is not just a mystery; it also explores the relationship of two estranged sisters brought together by a daughter. My more "literary fiction" bent felt cramped within the model.
When I tested the Story Grid on the more reflective or information-based genres of memoir or nonfiction, it didn't work as well either. So I began searching for a more universal model that writers in any genre could use.
Benefits of Chapter Templates
Free-flow writing and intuitive decisions about chapter size and where to break them--great when you're drafting or just beginning to revise. Using the intuitive side keeps the left brain from smothering the subtler levels of story as they emerge.
Early on, you may have some idea of how the accumulating pages could break into chapters. But, unfortunately, most writers never move out of the
go by how it feels mode when revising, and their chapters stay stuck in early structure decisions. Either they've broken the manuscript into uniform segments, about 10 pages on average, which they decide are good chapters. Or they choose arbitrary breaks to give the reader a pause. Neither makes for good chapter structure.
As I studied successful chapters, I saw there was a clear pattern. I crafted this template and tested it with private coaching clients and my classes. So far, it's held up. It's solved chapter-structure dilemmas in fiction, memoir, and nonfiction.
Your writing exercise this week is to test it out with one of your not-quite-there chapters and see what you think.
Five Components of Successful Chapters
I found five components exist in most successful chapters. Here they are and how they're used.
Opening setup. A question or quest opens most strong chapters in any genre. A dilemma starts the momentum and carries the reader forward into the chapter's main action or development. It might be as complex as someone wakes up that morning and discovers her mate is not in bed or in the house. Or an invitation comes. Or the doctor calls with news. Or a meeting begins, someone leaves, someone arrives.
The opening setup usually reflects the
of the whole book in some small way. It gives a hint of what's to come. In class we looked at a chapter from
Sunnybrook: A True Story with Lies
by Persimmon Blackwell, where the opening setup up is preparing for an interview, and
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
by Alexandra Fuller, where the opening setup is the girl waking up and needing to pee but she can't wake her parents because they sleep with guns by their bedside.
In a nonfiction book such as
by Atul Gawande, the opening setup is the start of a surgical procedure.
In all three examples, a quest is begun, however large or small. Because the chapter presents a successful opening setup, a hint of conflict is also presented: Will the quest succeed? What else might happen (or go wrong)?
Acceleration. After the opening setup, usually within a page or less, there's some acceleration of the problem. Things do get more complicated. This is important: it gives the chapter momentum. The reader keeps reading to find out more.
Many writers pause to deliver lengthy backstory or information here. Some is OK, but be cautious about more than a few lines or paragraphs. It'll drop the tension you've created with the opening setup. As an editor, when I review manuscripts that offer pages of backstory, I know the chapter is not successfully structured. As a reader, I often skip or put the book down just there.
Sunnybrook, the acceleration is the interviewee dressing in a way that covers the scars on her arms. In
Dogs, the acceleration is the girl waking her sister instead of her parents, even though she knows her sister is a risky bet too. In
Complications, it's revealed that the surgery is going to be tricky.
Dramatized action. This section of a chapter covers the most real estate. Pages, often. Ideally, it's one scene in a specific moment of time and a specific place, not summarized but dramatized fully onstage in front of the reader. If there is a sequence of moments, they link or build in tension, one to the next. They are not unrelated or similar in tension level--that also drops the tension of the chapter and the reader feels we're hearing the same thing again and again. In
Sunnybrook, this is the actual interview. In
Dogs, this is the scene in the bathroom (a dark outhouse with scorpions and snakes). In
Complications, this is the procedure in all its gory detail.
Window of truth. I found this present in so many books I explored. It's almost a requirement, now, for chapters I love in published books, but I've never seen it discussed in writing classes or craft articles. I call it a "window of truth" because it connects back to the dismantling of the false agreement that starts the chapter.
Say the false agreement is the mental health care system is intact, as in
Sunnybrook. The window of truth is a one line sidebar where the narrator reveals that she knows that's not true--in a big way--and she's going to bust it open. Say the false agreement is every woman (or kid) for herself in war-torn Rhodesia, as in
Dogs. The window of truth is two lines, where the four-year-old girl reveals that she wants help; she can't do it alone. Say the false agreement in Complications is that surgeons are gods. The window of truth busts this open when the surgery is complicated (hence the title) and surgeons are helpless if they hold to this superior belief.
It's not much. It's potent. It is placed towards the end of the chapter, usually, after we've experienced full dramatization of the question or quest.
The closing setup. In books, you don't end there, with a neat wrap up. If you do, your readers won't turn to the next chapter, right? They'll pause to reflect, set your book down, and maybe not pick it up again. It took me many thousands of dollars in an MFA program to learn this: book chapters, except the final chapter, must have a transition that leads to the next chapter. They must leave something unresolved from the opening setup OR hint at a new dilemma, quest, or question.
I often craft the closing setup at revision. This kind of transition is often hard to see when you're just drafting. After the whole-book structure is intact, and your chapters built successfully, it's easy to go back in and tweak the end of each chapter to include a closing setup line or paragraph.
Hint: the closing setup often loops back to the false agreement. Not always, but often. It can fully re-embrace the false agreement, solidifying it even more.
Sunnybrook, we learn the interviewee is given the job at the mental hospital, but the head psychiatrist doesn't know she is a former patient. The closing setup is the question: What?!!? And we read on to find out how she manages. In
Dogs, the young girl lies when her father asks how she slept; "like a log," she says, again pretending she can handle wartime life without complaining.
This week: See if one of your troublesome chapters can be reworked using this model.
How Powerful Is the "Container" of Your Story?
Book writers must create writing that pulls a reader in, that engages us so well, we can't stop reading. A favorite nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, spoke about this task--and its challenge to most writers--in the preface to his book What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.
Gladwell's topics are potentially dry. I love his ability to present his material in an amazingly engaging way.
"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade," he said. "It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."
Each book writer has their topic, the thing they must write about. Some write about a fantasy world, some write flowers, some write about growing up with addictions. No matter your topic, the trick is to make it engaging. It's harder than it sounds.
The key is something called "container."
This week I'm gathering some new material for my fall online class, Strange Alchemy, which begins October 25 and focuses writers on container in their story. What is present, now, and how can it be enhanced? How does container intersect with character--so that you understand a character better by the setting that echoes their motivations or emotions? How does an event come alive in a perfectly depicted container?
If you have any doubt about the importance of container, think of films. Imagine The Matrix being shot on a farm in rural New Zealand. Or that classic, West Side Story, taking place on a ranch in Kansas. Container may be something you completely overlook as you draft your story, or it might be your favorite aspect. Not enough container means your reader won't engage emotionally with the characters or events--because (and here's the kicker) container is the main vehicle for delivering emotion and meaning in story.
This is the first step to producing the engaging writing that Gladwell is talking about.
Tough Material, Great Container
In my Strange Alchemy class, we read an essay by Susan J. Miller, excerpted from her book Never Let Me Down. Miller's father was a well-respected jazz musician who hung out with the likes of George Handy and Stan Getz. But he was also a heroin addict, and her life was terribly affected by this. Her memoir is heart-breaking.
Some writers are repulsed by such a topic, others feel it's terribly pertinent to today's world. We always have a lively debate, trying to understand why the essay affects us so much, and in
the end, we usually realize it is because of Miller's extraordinary "container," the living environment of her story.
This is the key to engaging writing. Container, the larger environment of your book's story, delivers more emotion than plot, characters, topic, structure, or all of these combined.
"It's counter-intuitive," is the comment I get most often--"you would think that good plot, exciting action, would create emotional response."
Good plot creates momentum, yes. It drives the story forward. But it's container that brings forth that emotional response. It's what makes us feel hit in the gut by a story's tender moment or feel our hearts racing with anticipation by a twist. Without container, plot is just a series of events, like a newspaper report.
Why else would I, as a reader, become so engaged in the healing of a crime-ridden neighborhood, the comeback of Hush Puppy Shoes, and other examples from Gladwell's classic book, The Tipping Point? I don't care about Hush Puppies. Really. But I did when he talked about them. Same with Susan Miller's work. Heroin addiction is not on my list of fun things to read about. But I was totally engrossed by her tale.
Because both Gladwell and Miller are masters of writing container.
How Is Container Presented?
Container is presented in writing in several ways. Here are a few from just one paragraph of Miller's essay:
1. physical setting (being on a speeding subway train, watching the night flash by outside the grimy windows)
2. use of the five senses (screech of train wheels, whisper of her father's voice against her ear)
3. physical sensations (the rocking of a train causing nausea, felt in the body)
4. word choice ("screech" and "whisper" echo the sounds of jazz being played--Miller's overall container for the essay)
5. paragraph length and flow (a series of clauses, separated by commas, giving the impression of movement and jerkiness while on the subway train)
The effect of this paragraph--one where her father takes her on a train ride then gleefully whispers that he just dropped acid--is one of terror. A young girl is aware that her father might at any moment decide the train car is a tomb and try to jump off. What can she do? Not much. She just has to ride out the ride.
It's an astonishing container.
This Week's Exercise
Choose a dead spot in your writing--a paragraph or a page. Insert one of the above tools to increase container. See if you can let go of your preferences as a writer and be willing to see your work from the reader's view. Does more emotion come through?
And if you'd like to join a stellar and warm community online for my Strange Alchemy class which begins in a few weeks, here's the link to check it out. You need to be working on fiction or memoir to benefit most from the class, but all levels of writers are welcome.
Publishing Alternatives to the Big Five--What Is Best for Your Book?
Quite a few of my clients have released their books this past year, always a happy moment for me. My bookshelves are crammed with gift copies, which they often send as thank-you's, and I love seeing the finished product. And how far the book has come since we began working together, in class or privately.
Some have decided to go with agents, some on their own. But many, agented or not, have explored beyond the Big Five NYC publishers and found alternative homes for their books. One author I spoke with recently said she's so happy with how her book came out, via a partner press, and she's grateful she was open to other options besides the Big Five. Her agent even counseled her against them, and I've heard this from other authors this past year.
I get emails each week asking about these alternatives, so I thought it might be good to give an overview in this blog post. Even if you are far from ready to publish, it's good to know your options.
Big Five: The parent companies are Penguin-Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan, but there are so many imprints (or specialized publishing arms) within these. They rule the publishing world, in a way, and it's harder than ever to get in the door. Agents are required. An agent I spoke with said that these publishers, if they accept your book, give you about two to six weeks to make a splash. After that, the book goes to backlist, which means it's hard to get and gets no attention. The author is still responsible for all publicity, unless you score a really great deal. Advances are minimal. Authors do not front money, and most (so I've been told) do not earn back their advances through sales. Standard royalty after advance is paid back.
To me, it's a bit like the lottery. You may win, you may not, and it'll take a lot of luck and hard work (and your own money to hire a publicist--around $5000 on average--to help you get the reviews, blurbs, and promotion you'll need for that splash). Some of my clients have scored, and I cheer them on. But it's a long shot for most first-time authors. Luckily, there are many other options.
Mid-size, academic, and small presses: Included are J.P. Tarcher, Harbinger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, Workman, John Wiley & Sons, W.W. Norton, Chronicle, Tyndale, and quite a few others; most university presses; and small, specialty presses. Some require agents, some do not. I sold most of my books to small or mid-size presses. I had an agent for five books, then he retired, and I used my contacts to sell directly. Both avenues worked well although I got a better deal with the agented books, which may have been the times. Advances are small, if at all. Some of my clients have gotten excellent publicity help from their press; others have not. These presses also expect the author to promote heavily, possibly hire a publicist too. My books are (mostly) still available and I found the presses (mostly) wonderful to deal with, often offering high-quality editing. Authors do not front money for production; standard royalty package.
Partner publishers: These are sometimes called hybrid publishers. The author and publisher pool resources to produce the book--meaning, the author fronts money and earns it back through sales, unlike the advance/royalty system with the publishers mentioned above. Usually these books are sold via amazon and other online stores, rather than in bookstores, although there are exceptions. Ideal for the writer who has more money than time, because partner publishers walk you through the publication process and service you with professionals (design, editing, promotion). Some of these presses require submission and have certain criteria for which books they accept (examples are Greenleaf and She Writes Press). Author makes better royalty fees than traditional publishing, usually, but less than indie (self-) publishing.
Assisted self-publishing: So many writers want to control their own books, but they don't know where to begin to get them out there. To service that need, a flock of companies have started up that allow you to buy a complete publishing package: editing, design, etc. Unlike partner publishers, you keep all the sales from your book, but you're also completely responsible for getting it to readers once it's produced. Some examples of this kind of publisher: Dog Ear Press, Book in a Box, Girl Friday. But research these presses carefully. Many companies are not as trustworthy as they should be. Both Jane Friedman and Mick Rooney (Independent Publishing Magazine) are great resources.
Self- or indie publishing: This is purely DIY, so writers who opt for self-publishing without assistance need to get their own team of production help unless they are whizzes at desktop publishing and copyediting. Two very reliable companies headline the indie front: CreateSpace (amazon.com) and Ingram (Spark). Clients have also used iUniverse and others, with mixed results. You pay everything, you do everything, you get everything, including complete control. I self-published one book; my team costs were about $2000. and it was a very satisfying experience, despite all the work.
An Inventory of Bad Decisions in Your Book--And Why Bad Decisions Make the Best Stories
A student in my classes complained about her writer's block. She'd started her book with a bang, writing four chapters that just flowed out. Then, she hit chapter 5. Stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen.
Remembering a friend's motto, "bad decision make the best stories," I suggested this writer inventory the bad decisions in her chapters.
I asked her to make a list of any moment that a choice went awry, that cause led to challenges instead of smoothness. Search for anything that created unease or more trouble.
I firmly believe the momentum of a story comes from its qualities of risk. If the writer can edge closer to the edge of her story, she'll naturally create tension in the writing. It won't feel good, perhaps, especially if she's someone who likes life on an even keel. But it will raise the stakes, and that's what makes good story.
This writer was working on her storyboard so she went back to it. As she reviewed the plot points, she realized nothing big had happened after the great beginning of chapter 1. She had rationalized that she was saving the big stuff for later.
But with zero bad decisions, there was also zero momentum. Very little energy to propel the plot.
As she explained her dilemma and her choices, I realized that this writer is a very nice person. She believes in a world where most people are good at heart. She knew she had to get her characters in trouble, but she resisted it in every way. They were like her, good people too.
I like her, who wouldn't? And I also believe in that kind of world. But not on paper. Not in fiction or memoir, especially if you want to publish today.
I'm not suggesting you have to make murder and mayhem. Bad decisions can just be telling a white lie, and watching the consequences unfold. I asked this writer if she'd ever told a white lie, and she said, "Of course, who hasn't?"
"Find your bad decisions," I suggested. "List them, then transport one into your story."
Finding Bad Decisions--This Week's Writing Exercise
We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too. They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try.
Think of one. Then remember your "story" after the bad decision. It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences.
That's what you're after in your writing.
This week, write about one really bad decision you made in your life. Write about it in all its glory. I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony. Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.
Now look at your book draft. List the bad decisions, small and large. Where are they placed in the plot? Remember, they are the propellant for your story. If they are clumped together, they'll create a bang, yes, but the long period of nothing happening that follows the bang will read like a whimper. Or worse, a flat line.
If you don't have many bad decisions on your list, make another list. Write down 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.) Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening. Imagine the bad decision and the shame, embarrassment, bad news that follows. Cause and effect, right? That's what story is made of.
See if this provides momentum. Gets you unstuck. Out of that "still life."
How Do You Know When to Stop Expanding and Start Revising?
The relationship of writer to book-in-progress reminds me of a marriage. As opposed to a date.
Poems, articles, columns, and short stories are all creative commitments, sure. But even if they linger unfinished for a while, they are short relationships compared to 350 pages of manuscript.
With a book, you regularly re-evaluate your progress, your purpose, and your plans. You recommit again and again. Not unlike the work it takes to make a marriage work.
Many of my students weary of this. Is it ever done? they ask. When is enough, enough?
Some writers ask this when stuck or bored. Revising seems like more fun than continuing to draft chapters. But there is a real moment when the book has expanded as much as it needs to, and only in the more microscopic work of revision can the writer discover the next levels of truth in the story.
A writer from New York, working on his nonfiction book for several years, once sent me a very good question about this: "At what point does one realize what they are trying to write is the final 'version'? My subject/point of view has changed several times. When do I stop?"
As You Evolve, So Does the Book
For me, a book evolves in stages. There's the initial concept for the story or the method or the idea you want to write about. You know a limited amount about the characters or the dilemma or the subject, or maybe you know a lot--from research or notes or pieces you've written. But there's much more to understand, which will only be revealed to you as you build your book. Unfortunately, there's no predicting exactly how long this will take.
One of the factors is time. The more time, the sooner your book will reveal itself. Back to that analogy about marriage: If you spend time with your spouse, you get to know each other better. It's a no brainer in relationships, but writers are often impatient. Ask yourself truthfully: How much time have you
really put in? Two hours a week? Less?
After two years at two faithful hours a week, it would be possible to have a good rough draft. But unless you have a lot of writing experience already, you may only have that--a rough draft. Why? A writing colleague put it this way: "After three days of not writing, it takes a while to get back into my story." The book disappears from your consciousness after three days, so you may not be able to spend the next writing session actually moving forward. Rather, you may be spending half or more of it reacquainting yourself with the book. That's OK--as long as you're aware of it and don't expect miracles.
When I began writing books in the 1980s, I expected miracles. But I was lucky back then--I worked with editors at the publisher's office. They helped me evaluate where I was in the journey. I learned from them, wise souls that they were, about the re-acquainting time that's required after not writing. I learned that more time goes in to building the first draft than new writers prepare for. They told me not to be surprised if my books took two to three years before a solid first draft was formed, one that could stand up to revision.
I learned with each book I published that most need at least a year or two of attentive planning and writing, discovery and exploration of both voice and topic, before I had enough of a manuscript to begin revision.
Which presents the dilemma from my student, above: Obviously, if two years goes by, you won't stay the same. Why expect your book to? If you're prepared for that too--and I wasn't, for my first books, but editors wised me up--you won't be frustrated with the changes that naturally occur.
Because during this planning and writing stage, books are supposed to change. They evolve as we get to know them better, as our skills grow, as we get clearer about what is the book and what is not.
Each time I felt my book was ready, each time I got to that point when I thought to myself,
Enough! Get the thing out the door, I had an editor to check in with. Most of the time, he or she pointed out the blind spots that I'd overlooked in my inexperience. Agents sometimes fill this role. Coaches and paid editors definitely do.
So how do you find out, without a publisher's editor, whether your planning and writing stage is indeed over and you're ready to move on to revision?
Revision Is Not Just Editing
This is another lesson I learned the hard way, working with a publisher's editor: Revision is not simply substantive or copy editing: cleaning up sentences, fixing typos, and massaging the passages a little. My editors taught me that copy editing is like the final touch. It comes just before publishing, only after a manuscript is strong and complete in its content, structure, and language.
Before the editing, comes the revision. Although it's very important to create clean copy, if a writer tackles technical work before the book is solid, it's like embroidering curtains on a barely framed house. Not at all a useful exercise.
I learned that revision literally means "re-seeing," and this all-important stage is about taking what you've created and seeing it anew, from a new viewpoint. Whose viewpoint? The reader's. Revision is where writer invites reader into the room where the book lives. Then, once the book and the reader get acquainted, the writer leaves.
Robert Olen Butler, who wrote the well-loved writing book
From Where You Dream, talks about how hard it is for most writers to actually leave the reader alone with their stories. Most writers feel the strong need to interpret and tour guide their work to the reader. You can just feel the presence of a hovering person, wanting to make sure you really understand what this or that passage means. In revision, this has to go. You as the writer must let your work live and breathe on its own.
It's very hard for most writers to tell when they are hovering, interpreting, and otherwise annoying their potential readers. For this, most of us need feedback. When I am questioning if my manuscript is ready for revision, I will find three kind readers and formulate three questions for each reader to answer. I don't need to know if the writing is good or bad--that's irrelevant at this point. I need to know where the reader stumbles, senses too much of a hovering presence of the writer, loses interest. These passages exist in all early drafts and readers, if asked, will help you find them.
Then you look at these passages and try to "re-see" them. What were you intending just there, in the manuscript? Why didn't your intention reach the reader? Did you get scared, omit something important, bluster your way through to try to hide it? This is very common. Finding these unconscious places is the first step to revision.
These places are where you lost heart. You need to go back and put it in, before you go any further.
Early Drafts Come from the Heart, Revision Comes from the Head
One of my favorite scenes of writing instruction comes from the movie,
Finding Forrester. Forrester, the famous recluse writer, played by Sean Connery, puts a typewriter in front of the young writer Jamal. Forrester begins to type. The young writer doesn't. So Forrester asks, "What are you waiting for?"
"I'm thinking," says the young writer.
Forrester shakes his head. "No, no. No thinking. That comes later."
As they start to type in unison, Forrester slips in these simple instructions. They explain so clearly the difference between drafting and revision:
"You write your first draft with your heart," Forrester says. "You revise with your head."
So many of us get this backwards. We think so much about our early drafts that the pages don't actually contain any heart. We get down plenty of words, often good words, but unless the writing has meaning, unless it reveals the heart of the writer, we're not going to reach our readers.
Feedback prior to revision lets me know if there is more heart needed, more revealing that can be done. It's only after I have given everything I have to the manuscript, that it's ready for the head part, the thinking.
This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Rent the movie,
Finding Forrester. It's an old one, but it's still around on Netflix and other places (our library has it). Watch it again, from a writer's point of view. What can you learn from this fictional character about the process of writing?
2. If you have a completed draft and you wonder if you're ready for revision, take a deep breath and find three readers to help you. Avoid choosing immediate family and close friends, especially those who know your book pretty well. Look for people who can give you an overview. You're going to ask them to read the manuscript and mark in the margins any place where they (1) stumble or (2) want more. Tell them you aren't looking for fixes, you just want to see where you've lost heart, lost the reader's perspective. You're asking them just to respond as readers.
3. From this review, you'll learn a lot about your book and where it is in the continuum.
Strictly Accurate Memoir? True-Life Novel? How Close to the Line Do You Ride?
Camilla, a writer in my New York classes many years ago, completed a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II. I remember it as a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters. I also remember the dilemma she faced when she began sending it out into the world.
She wrote me, "I have been struggling with pinning down the genre, as memoirs are rarely taken if the person isn't famous. Although calling it a novel seems untruthful. In truth it is a bit of a hybrid, with scenes and dialogue created around facts, and my part of the story is 99 percent factual. I spoke with a published author who was very lovely and suggested I call it historical fiction. Yet is it remote enough in time, being about World War II?
"And I have all these photographs that kick off some of the chapters. I think these old photos really add to the story. Do you think I can get away with calling it family history, and still attract an agent?"
The First Big Question: What's Really True?
Camilla's question is common to many memoirists. First, we must ask ourselves: What is a memoir?
It's a true story, written by the author, about their own life (not an autobiography--not covering an entire life, just a snapshot of it). Most memoirs revolve around a theme or event. Because of this, twenty years ago, many booksellers didn't know what to do with the memoir genre. They shelved memoir with biography and autobiography--because back then only famous people published stories about their own lives.
Now it's different. Memoir is hot genre. It has produced unprecedented scandals and changes in publishing. Memoirs easily climb to the top of bestseller lists these days, and ordinary (read: not famous) people with extraordinary events or different perspectives are now welcome by publishers.
Because it's a hot genre, many writers have tried to climb aboard, with stories that are not really true. And this has led to the big question: How much of memoir needs to be true? How can we really remember accurately? And how does an honest writer tell an accurate story of her life?
Reliability of Memory--An Oxymoron?
Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous book
I Could Tell You Stories,
writes about this dilemma: "No memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory."
Add to that brain science's recent discoveries that memory changes as we remember something. What's a memoirist to do?
How it is possible to accurately tell what happened when we were very young, or very traumatized, or very ignorant?
This has provoked wonderful discussions among writers. Hampl suggests that there are two kinds of truth in writing about real life:
the emotional truth
the factual truth
Learning the difference--and finding out where you stand on the line between the two--is the first step.
What's in a Name? Fake Memoirs
Some writers haven't bothered. They just had a great story to tell, and they really didn't care if it was accurate. Thus was born the "fake memoir."
A well-known fake memoirist was James Frey. His 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces, made it to Oprah's book club, the highest rung on the promotional ladder, until his story was revealed as false and Oprah denounced him on air.
Margaret Seltzer followed close behind with her 2008 memoir about growing up in Los Angeles amid gang wars and drug lords, Love and Consequences. When her sister outed her, saying they had no such background, the published book was pulled from the shelves.
But this is not new. Even before these recent scandals were quieter ones: Two favorites, The Education of Little Tree (1976) and Mutant Message Down Under (1991), were published as memoirs of life with native populations but turned out to be fictionalized.
I loved both of these books. I remember how they held me up during some tough periods in my life, and how it made little difference to me that they were not true life. The Education of Little Tree was about a boy living with the Cherokees, but actually written by "a former white supremacist," according to Wikipedia. Shocking, and a betrayal of a reader's faith. But to be honest, I still loved the book, and I still own a copy.
Who likes to be lied to? I don't. I depend on truth, or as close to truth as possible, in what I read.
But I do love a great story. I also depend on being moved, emotionally and intellectually and spiritually, by the books I love.
So here's the rub. The Education of Little Tree, Mutant Message Down Under, drew me in as a reader. Good stories, well told. It pained me to hear what the writer had done, in each case. But the books still engaged me.
Am I a flawed person to think this? Hampl might say that I was drawn in by an emotional truth in each book, even as I was later repelled by its falsity in facts.
So there's the line: Emotional truth and factual truth--where do you comfortably stand, as a writer?
Back to Camilla's question.
True-Life Novels and Faction Books
Writers, who are delving into the unreliable area of memory, are beginning to wise up, and a new genre is emerging in publishing today: the true-life novel or faction book.
Jeannette Walls authored a very popular memoir, The Glass Castle, then went on to write its prequel, Half-Broke Horses. Although The Glass Castle is labeled as "memoir," and we still assume all those events are true, Half-Broke Horses is called "a true-life novel."
Walls comments in the introduction that she remembered this story of her grandmother's life, but since she wasn't actually there to hear the dialogue and see the details of facial expression and other facts, she made them up based on what she knew. And because of this imagining process, it was best to call the book a true-life novel.
Goodreads, a popular online book-sharing forum, has a "shelf" called True-Life Books, which features Walls's novel, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank, A Child Called It, and Elie Weisel's Night. Where's the line here, as far as genre? These last three are classified as memoir, as Walls's latest book is not. Where's the line?
Some consider Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a work of journalism and fiction both--"the originator of the nonfiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement," says one reviewer.
Those who love factual journalism may feel slightly nauseous as we end this discussion. As a newspaper writer for many years, I can relate.
"How can you tell what is real anymore, and what is just storytelling?" one student complained. For factual-truth writers, storytelling is nothing in relation to what is real. But for other writers, the thing that matters is whether the reader is engaged.
This comes back to my original question: where do you stand on the line?
Ten Things I've Learned by Finishing My Novel
In August, I took a month away from work, phones, and other people's writing to focus on the final edits for my novel. It's been a long, hard, exciting road.
Looking back, I slightly astonished by how naive I was when I began. It's been five years in the making, and I couldn't have done it in any less time. Enthusiasm and determination carried me through the first two years. I hit bottom then, and I was pulled out by taking writing classes and getting together a feedback group. They lasted a year or so. Then I hit bottom again, almost ditched the project. An agent, who did not end up taking the book, gave me excellent revision ideas. That flattened me (she wanted another project from me, not this one, but my heart was in this book and I had to finish it). But eventually I picked myself up and started the revisions. I realized I needed more skill in certain areas, so I found yet another group of writing partners and a for-hire editor to learn from. Two more years of revision and I feel confident enough to send it to my beta readers and begin the search for an agent now that mine has retired.
But I wanted to pause, celebrate the milestone. I remembered a cool writing exercise shared by a friend long ago, and it filled the bill.
I'll post my own responses, then you can consider what you'd say about your book--no matter where you are in its conception or manifestation or publication process.
Acknowledging Your Progress: A Writing Exercise
1. Look back on the time you've been working on this book. It may be months or many years. Consider who you were, as a writer, when you began, and what you know now.
2. Write a list of ten things you've learned.
3. Spend time reflecting on these, how valuable they are, how hard won, how easy.
Note: It may feel too self-congratulatory to attempt this. Don't bother about that. It's supposed to be a moment of congratulations and acknowledgement. All writers need this kind of shine occasionally. It doesn't mean you're getting a big head--we all know writing is hard.
1. One of the reasons I read is for meaning, or how the river of a theme runs under a good story. In the beginning, I had a certain vision for my book's theme. I learned how much bigger it was, as I revised. I learned how to let it grow organically, which isn't easy!
2. This project was the most complicated I've ever tried, in terms of plot and multiple narrative voices. It demanded much more drafting, structuring, and revising time. I anticipated two years; it took five. I learned patience with my own process.
3. The characters surprised me. Like getting to know people in real life, it took time to get to know their motivations, longings, and secrets. I learned the most about my characters from my readers. I learned to listen to my readers.
4. The original story line is vastly different from what the book became. I had to start somewhere, but then let it grow into its own uniqueness. I learned how hard it is for writers to give up their original vision--a painful process that took time and lots of help. What we don't know we don't know, eh?
5. I had to be willing to be vulnerable on the page. A lot of my truths, my life values, got woven into the story. Not facts but truths. I felt very exposed at times and I had to sit with that, decide if it was OK, dial it back if needed.
6. It took a LOT of editing. I spent months just reading the pages out loud and wordsmithing. My standards are much higher than they ever were. I wanted it to be the best it could. I learned how much time this takes.
7. It also took a lot of fact checking and research. Thanks to the keen eyes of my writing partners and experts I consulted, I think I got crash landings, explosions, and other oddities accurate on the page.
8. I needed a lot of rest breaks. And new readers when my writing groups, sadly, disbanded. I started taking classes to meet new feedback partners and fresh readers. I learned to risk seeking them out.
9. I learned how to pace myself for the long haul--not a skill I've excelled at much of my life (I tend to write for hours, forgetting to eat, sleep, fill in the blank). I learned to set a timer for 45 minutes (a great amount of time to stay focused) and take a water or stretch break, or just look around and remember where I was.
10. I needed community more than I realized. I took steps to find others at my experience level and talk about the writing life, to get ideas and encouragement. Writers can't go it alone and stay whole; we need other writers more than we know.
What are your 10?
Your Writing Voice--How to Develop It, Recognize It, Not Copy Someone Else's
One of my long-time students asked a great question this week: how does a writer develop voice? Voice is the elusive uniqueness that comes out in writing over time, the signature of the individual wordsmith. We would never mistake a passage by Flannery O'Connor with one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
What makes them different, distinctive? Each delightful in its own way? That's voice.
The elusive hunt for voice is much discussed in writing books, classes, MFA programs as one of
the gateways that maturing writers face: Do I have a distinctive enough voice? If not, the writing may never reach readers, inspire and entertain and change lives. We may have a good plot idea, great characters, a good story. But eventually, to make our mark, we need to write in a voice readers will remember.
But the Catch-22: Voice only comes with maturity. By cultivating it, letting it arise, putting in your time. It can't be rushed, no more than any other growth and change that works from the inside out.
You can foster voice, yes. That's what this post is about: the small steps you can take to recognize, individuate, and develop your writing voice. But that magical quality of voice only comes as you put in your 10,000 hours.
I can answer my student with these suggestions. Hope they bring him to an understanding of voice. Hope they spur on the work it takes!
1. Read up. Like learning any skill, it's best to study those who are better than you. Read up. Read writers who have strong voice in their work. One of my students was learning voice and asked where to begin reading. I told him to start with the prize-winners: Pulitzer, Man-Booker, Orange, and other prizes are often worth looking at. He went to the Pulitzer website and began working his way through the list. His writing voice improved dramatically within a year, just from immersing himself in those great voices.
2. Model. In art classes, we paint the masters. We sit in front of their paintings--Rembrandt, Degas, Cezanne--and paint copies. Traditional way of creating cellular memory, eye-hand coordination, painters have done it for centuries. Writers are scared to do this--"What if I forget it's not mine and use it by mistake later?" I never met a painter who worried about this. Keep clean, and model carefully, and make sure your work is yours, and you'll be OK.
Modeling is a great technique for learning rhythm and voice. Why is a certain word used, why a paragraph break just there? Find a passage in a work you love and type it out (labeling it as the author's, not yours). See what your hand and eye and brain learn.
3. Study structure. Most writers hate structure, the antithesis of the free-flow creativity that's writing is supposed to be all about. Do you really think the great writers don't pay attention to structure? Voice and most writing skills are built on solid understanding of structure, how a piece is built from the ground up. By the time it's published, it comes across to the reader as natural, free flowing. But there are months or years of sweat and construction behind every piece of good writing.
Some writers print out their pages and lay them on a table, squinting at them to notice the rhythm of text and white space. Others read them aloud. Others ask friends to read them aloud and the writer listens. This teaches about voice, when it's present--clear uniqueness and surprise--and when it's not.
Voice is consciousness. Not being asleep. Whatever you can do to wake yourself up, is how you develop voice. Structure is one of the first ways.
4. Put in your 10,000 hours. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously said that mastering a skill takes about 10,000 hours. In our instant gratification world, we somehow believe voice should come naturally or not at all. Have you put in your time? Writing every day. Studying the great writers. Taking classes. Exchanging work and learning how to give feedback so you can begin to see where your own writing needs it. Learning basic grammar, sentence structure, even spelling.
I believe each of us has a unique writing voice, dormant inside. It's been smothered and silenced by schooling and years of criticism and self-doubt. Rare is the family and society and school that fosters uniqueness; most ask children and young adults and adult writers to conform and not stand out. We're easier to deal with, that way.
But if you believe you have a voice, waiting to come forth, and you are willing to put in your time to uncover it and develop it, you'll win. It takes work to coax it out of hiding and refine it for the page.
Why Strong Dialogue Matters--And Three Tips to Write It
Do you write dialogue? Did you know that many acquisitions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?
In their book,
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry. What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered. More than one revealed this: Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it. If it's good, they read more. If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.
Big pressure for writers! Why do you think dialogue is such an indicator of a writer's skill?
Chef Test--Why Dialogue Matters So Much
I used to be a restaurant chef, in another life. I was in charge of a small place in southern California, working the "line" with a wonderful team of cooks.
After hours, when the restaurant was closed and the kitchen was clean, we slummed. We visited other restaurants and tasted their soups.
Why soup? Soups tell you everything about a chef's skill. Soups are so hard to season well, so impossible to fake. You can cover up so-so entrees with great sauces, and chefs know this. So in the food business, soups are the "test" for a chef's skill. If a chef can get incredible flavor out of few ingredients in a soup, even better.
Now my theory may not pass the
Chopped! test, but it is a good analogy for understanding why dialogue is so key to good writing. Editors know that a so-so plot can be enhanced by great characters. Or vice versa. The story becomes palatable. But a to quickly learn a writer's skill, the editor uses the "soup" test--checking out dialogue. Does it contain a lot of exposition (told information) or is there great subtext (undercurrent)? Are the beats (pauses) placed well? Does the writer use too many adverbs and verbs other than "said" in the dialogue tags?
All of these are like test-tasting a chef's soup. It tells an editor a lot in just a few minutes.
You can try out my soup theory at the next restaurant you visit. Order a bowl and taste it, as we did, savoring or rejecting it, guessing the seasonings. It is more than a fun game, it can teach you a lot about cooking. Then do the same with your favorite published books--scan for dialogue and see how it "tastes."
Here are a few of the most important tips from my workshop in Minneapolis. Maybe they will help your dialogue shine!
Dialogue Tip #1: Most dialogue is not about revealing information.
Some writers use dialogue to share something, like a relationship detail or backstory or even general information about a subject. This is called a "reveal." Reveals are carefully planted in the narrative arc. If they come too early or too frequently, there's no tension. The reader has no incentive to read on, because everything is already "revealed."
Reveals are placed at the key points on the storyboard W and toward the end of the story. This carefully placement means that your story will build and build and the reveal will be a satisfying climax.
Reveals are where someone says what they mean. So most dialogue, if it's not reveals, must be about what's not being said.
I'll say that again: Most dialogue is all about what's not being said, or the subtext. This means what you say is not about what's at stake, what's most important.
Think Thanksgiving dinner with family--how little honest discussion there might be at that infamous gathering. Mostly, if you eavesdrop, you'd hear subtext--what's not being said. All the relationship tensions are underlying the conversation about weather, food, and social news.
In literature, subtext is everything--so you as the writer have to figure out the undercurrent of your dialogue and write that, rather than the truth that's beneath the surface of the water.
Dialogue Tip #2: Enhance the emotion of the subtext by connecting it to the setting or environment of the scene.
In Leif Enger's brilliant novel,
Peace Like a River, there's a scene at the crisis point of the story when Rube follows his brother Davy to the hideout cabin. Rube then meets Davy's new friend, Mr. Walzer,who is quite a dangerous character.
Rube recognizes this danger immediately, but his brother is a captive of this man. Ruben doesn't want to do anything to set Mr. Walzer off.
Enger presents as close to a "normal" conversation as possible in such circumstances. No reveals are possible because any wrong word could get both boys killed. So there's plenty of great subtext.
In the middle of the scene, the tension becomes to great and Rube's asthma flares up.
Here's where I really appreciate Enger's skill: As Walzer begins coaching Rube on how to breathe, the atmosphere around them gets thicker and heavier. The metaphor of "not being able to breathe" is echoed by the stuffy cabin and the eventual loss of air in Ruben's lungs--so much so, that he faints.
We see by these echoes that Ruben is unable to breathe on many levels. The connection between the subtext and the stuffy cabin works perfectly.
Finally, at the end of the scene is the reveal, where Rube takes his life in his hands and tells Mr. Walzer to shut up.
Study Enger's writing for how this is done. And try it yourself: If you are working on a dialogue scene and want to enhance it with the surrounding setting--a very good device--be sure the two connect in some way. Just look for the metaphor in the subtext and see what can be echoed in the setting.
The two always work in a kind of rhythm--if the dialogue is skilled.
Dialogue Tip #3: Use beats (intentions) to create music in your dialogue.
Screenwriters and playwrights know all about beats. A beat is a pause, a short break in the dialogue that lets a new level of subtext emerge. At each beat, a new level of intention is presented to the reader. In other words, things get more complicated.
Beats are like roadmaps in dialogue. They are placed carefully because of this one rule: Wherever the beat occurs, emphasis falls on the word just before the beat.
That one word (or sometimes the phrase) carries all the subtext meaning, all the rising tension. Readers unconsciously absorb this, like hopping from one stone to another in a stream, following the beats.
Here's an example:
"I love you," he said, "not her."
(You is the word that carries weight here.)
What if the dialogue read: "I love you, not her," he said. (Her gets the emphasis now, and we don't quite believe this speaker's telling the truth.)
Can you see the difference? Hear how the intention shifts because of the beat--because of where the writer chose to break the dialogue?
Same is true with beats that are not tags (she said, he said are called dialogue tags).
"I know your name." He took a pull on his drink. "I just forgot it." (Name, or identity, is the subtext here--and the drinking is definitely a way to forget it.)
I study favorite dialogue passages in published books, reading them aloud, to discover where to place the beats in my own dialogue.
These are just a few of the aspects of writing strong dialogue. But maybe they'll help you take your dialogue to another level.
Remember, it's the key to a successful story--one that will be read and savored by others.
Your weekly writing exercise is to take 15 minutes and find a favorite published book (novel, memoir, nonfiction) that uses dialogue. Locate a passage that, to you, really sings. Figure out if the author used any of the dialogue techniques listed above.
Then go to your own writing. Choose a stuck scene. Add 5 lines of dialogue, employing the techniques in this blog post. See if it makes a difference.
The Value of a Writing Community--To Help You Finish Your Book
Summer is teaching time for me. I just returned from a week on Madeline Island, a blissful spot, made even more so by the twenty-three writers who attended this summer's retreat. We formed a perfect community, I thought: supportive, funny at times and serious at others, able to work hard and celebrate each others' growth.
On Thursday evening, we traditionally have an open reading time, where writers at the retreat can choose to share a small excerpt of their book-in-progress. I ask them to choose someone else in the class to read it aloud for them--it's a wonderful gift to the writer, who hears new things. Without exception, the writings were excellent. We applauded, commented on what we loved and what we wanted more of. It feels, always, like a celebration and an acknowledgement of what was achieved in just five days.
This week, my two summer online classes are ending. For the final assignments, each writer shared a revision of a piece posted earlier in the course. Again, without exception, the writings were top level. As were the comments from the class. I gave some next steps to consider for each piece, but really, there was such improvement, my feedback was mostly cheers.
Whether online or in person, writing community is essential for anyone working on a book. You can't go it alone, not easily.
Many of the writers in the online classes are already getting together and planning how to keep exchanging work. Retreatants are emailing me about connections they made in the Madeline Island class. I'm very pleased--because it's something I believe in, deeply, and foster in my classes, always.
I couldn't have produced the books I've published--or the novel I'm just finishing--without a writing community. Sometimes it's one or two colleagues to exchange chapters with, sometimes it's a monthly or weekly writers' group that keeps me generating pages.
Writing community does this for me:
1. Provides accountability
2. Gives me feedback
3. Helps me not feel alone during the long haul of writing a book
4. Lightens me up when I feel down about a rejection
5. Keeps me from the edge of crazy (especially when writing fiction or memoir)
6. Normalizes the writing life
7. Gets to know my story almost better than I do, and is able to point out my blind spots and give me new inspiration
Maybe you're in a writing group that is slowly falling apart, getting stale, or becoming more social than creative, and you know you need to freshen things but you're not sure just how to do it. Or perhaps you're newly invested in your book and need more rigorous accountability, soon.
Writing communities ebb and flow, just like any relationship. It's important, I've found, to be honest with your partners/groups and let them know if you need more or different. I just got emails this week from two writing partners, whom I adore and appreciate but who have been derailed from writing with life lately. They're back, and I'm ecstatic. But while they were away, I searched and found other avenues to get my feedback.
This week's writing exercise is to assess your writing community. Do you have one? Is it serving you well? If not, what might you do next?
Making Time for Your Writing in the Dog Days of Summer
I've always loved August in New England, where I live. The heat and sun and sultry air just make me want to go slower, take in more of the beauty of summer's final days. We get winter all too soon here. New Englanders know how to make the most of summer.
When I first moved here, I thought the slower pace in summer would be perfect for writing. But laziness settles over me. And the allure of a thousand fun summer activities. I'm a passionate gardener and there's always plenty to do. Who wants to spend daylight hours indoors?
Other writers also let their books languish in summer. One colleague has three school-age kids. Camp gives her small pockets of writing time during the day, but it's hard to keep momentum going on her book.
Another complains about visiting family, trips to the beach or lake, parties that go on into the wee hours keeping her from writing.
We agree: it's fine to enjoy summer, to wait for snowbound days. After all, who really cares in the long run? There's no rush to finish unless we have a contract--which most don't, in today's publishing world that demands complete manuscripts on submission.
No deadlines mean we control our own writing time. We self-propel. That's good, and not.
Ever notice the proliferation of summer writing conferences? It's not just because people have more free time. It's because we need reasons to write in summer. We go to a conference, we get juiced. We may exchange emails and promise to help each other's accountability. I saw my students do this at a writing retreat I taught last week. So many of them were re-inspired. Many set goals. How many will keep them?
It's an important question, I've found. After a few days or weeks
without writing, it's harder to locate the trail of your story. Much harder to find a way back into it.
Motivation comes from two sources: internal and external. As you get to know yourself creatively, you learn which is your gold mine. I have internal motivation for a while--quite a while, because I've been doing this writing gig for decades. But eventually, even I wear out my discipline. That's when I bring in the external motivation. I set myself artificial deadlines: a writers' group who expect pages, a writing partner with whom I exchange a chapter a week, an editor I pay to read my manuscript.
If you know this about yourself, you make it happen. For me, the paid editor is absolutely the most motivating--because my hard-earned money is behind it. But I have also found excellent writing partners and value them for accountability, especially if we both are producing regularly.
Some tricks I've learned to keep writing in the summer:
1. Sign up for a fall class that offers workshopping of pages or chapters. You'll need to be ready to submit in week 1. So you take time now to choose a piece and work on it. Potential embarrassment is also a good motivator, as well as the money you pay for the class.
2. Don't slack on deadlines with your writing partner or group. Know the summer excuses--travel, kids home, parties, family visiting--and decide to write anyway. Find those who feel as serious about it as you do.
3. Get an app that nags you about word count (google word count for writers and you'll see many), or use a goal setting feature on Scrivener or other writing software. It may annoy you enough to keep writing.
4. If you're motivated by closure, read this great
about Jerry Seinfeld's calendar technique. Writers in my online classes have used it and loved it.
5. Pay someone to keep you writing--and to help you along the way. Set up a delivery date three weeks or three months from now, with just enough pressure to force you to work now to get ready. (That's my method. It works.)
This week I got an email from a writer I've worked with before. He is a CEO and super busy, but he's trying to finish his book. "I'll need you to kick-start me come September," he said. So we arranged that he'd get back to his book in August, after travel eased. He'll be working all month, preparing the manuscript to send me for feedback. He's excited to have the deadline.
When I scan a summer day's many options, when a friend calls and wants to go to the ocean, when the family is having a cookout, when the garden is a jungle and needs my immediate attention, I can easily put aside my writing. But then, there's my desire to finish this novel. Backed by a deadline of mid-August to get revised chapters to my paid editor.
Your weekly writing exercise is to assess your motivation for your writing. Is internal (self-discipline) motivation enough for you to keep working on your book these next weeks? Do you need an external motivator? Scan the options above and see what might click for you.
Writing a Satisfying Ending: Hints about How to Wrap Up Your Story
This week I'm traveling to one of my favorite places: Madeline Island and the Madeline Island School of the Arts, where I teach each summer and fall. I'm about to welcome a group of twenty-three writers who will be attending my workshop/retreat and my independent study week. We'll be diving deep into our book projects for five days, free of interruptions. Looking for breakthroughs.
One of the assignments I offer the group is to draft their final chapter. Because the group is varied in writing experience and progress with their projects, this suggestion often gets astonished reactions. "How can I possibly write my final chapter when I don't know what the rest of the book is about!?"
I'm used to these reactions. I have a good reason. Almost all of the writers go for the idea and many of them are delighted by the result.
Writing the final chapter isn't as hard as it seems. Here are two articles that tell writers what to look for--and what to avoid.
From The Atlantic.
From The New Yorker.
|The blog will be on pause next week while I am teaching on Madeline Island. Check out past posts by scrolling down or visiting my blog site here.
Instant Gratification: Dangers of Seeking It When Writing a Book
When we start writing a book, we have no clue how long it will take. Most first-time book writers think maybe a year, two at the most? A colleague was both relieved and dismayed to learn from a graduate-school panel of published writers that memoirs typically take seven years to write. Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-seller,
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, said her book took ten years and it couldn't have gone any faster--she needed all that time.
But we're seduced by workshops and craft books that promise a completed manuscript, ready for agents, in nine months. I recently heard of a workshop that was called "Novel in a Month." I participate in Nanowrimo regularly (National Novel Writers Month) and have even published a novel from that marathon, but it didn't come out finished--it needed a couple of years of revision before it was ready for other eyes.
Instant gratification. We're trained towards it in our culture. It's exciting to think that you can produce a publishable book from idea to finished draft in one month, isn't it? That's not much of your life to give. But it's an illusion, truly. If you believe it, if you can actually do it, more power to you. Let me know, and I'll be at your book-signing launch.
Most writers don't want to spend their whole life writing their books, but they also feel constantly behind if they believe this myth of producing a quality manuscript that fast. It might be relief to hear than most writers take between three to six years to write and revise their first book. The second one, maybe less. Or maybe, like me, you get interested in a much more complex structure and you take a little longer. I'm on year five with my current novel and it's close to being really done this time. I needed all those years, all that learning, all the help and mentoring I got, all those mistakes I made (sending it out too early, suffering through rejections) to produce a story that astonishes me now--especially when I recognize what I
didn't know about it when I began.
A friend who struggles with how long a book takes shared an excellent writing exercise that I'll pass along this week. It helps calm the urgency, the feeling of being behind, and the seducing whine of instant gratification, to let the writer get back to work.
Your weekly writing exercise: Where I've come and what I've learned so far
1. Take 20-30 minutes and remember where you were when you began this book project. If you can actually recall your location, the life you lived then, any other details, bring them forward.
2. Begin making a list of what you've learned since then. On my list was ten or more items about my characters alone. Plus dialogue. Plus plotting! Plus, plus, plus. Write for as much of the 20-30 minutes as you can, including even small learnings you know you've made.
This exercise is a mood booster, at minimum. It also helps the writer become more satisfied with where they are and honor what they've learned, so it's easier to keep going.
Why a Memoir Is Not an Autobiography
My elderly aunt finished her memoirs. She mailed me a photocopy. It was great fun to read--she's always been entertaining storyteller with interesting experiences and a great understanding of people. She's 97 now and lives in an assisted living community where a fellow resident helped her write up her life stories. She calls them her "memoirs," and indeed they are--an an act of remembering and a legacy for the family.
Memoir comes from the Anglo-French word
memoirie (from the fifteenth century),meaning "memory" or "note," an "account of someone's life." A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.
But if you're gearing towards publishing outside of family and friends, you need to know how memoir now differs from autobiography.
Modern memoir focuses on a salient part of a life, not the entire trajectory, as an autobiography might. Rarely does modern memoir start with birth and end with death, or wherever the writer happens to be.
I like to think of modern memoir as a snapshot of a certain period of time that was pivotal. It offers a perspective to the writer. It may have changed the writer's life in a big way. That's where we begin. We need to find that pivotal moment, first, then explore it for its universality so readers other than family members will get something out of it.
You have your life behind you, and it may sound hard to pick just one pivotal moment. So in book structuring, we expand that to five moments. Maybe the start of a change, the next step, the next, a setback, then a step forward. I think of This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff which begins with a drive across country with his mother. That drive triggers a whole series of events that change him completely. What might be your memoir's triggering event and what does that moment lead to?
In a few weeks, I'll be teaching my once-a-year workshop on memoir, Writing Your Life, at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. One exercise I love, which we use in the workshop, is to look at a ten-year period that seems likely to offer a pivot for the story, then explore it for meaning and change.
Once the writer lands on the pivot of their memoir, it's easier to reach out from it to find the intersecting storylines--what might have happened years before that led to this moment, what happened years later that came as a result.
You can also choose where to place the weight of your memoir, once you know this pivotal moment. Some memoirists write about the time leading to this moment; some write about the aftereffects--the living with, surviving from, reconciling or not. A memoir can often be built on any of these, or sometimes all of them, with the event in the middle.
The event is the first step. Then, brainstorming on the lines that radiate out from it to find the story's threads.
Deciding the pivotal moment, then choosing the direction forward or backward, leads to the third step: how to weave in the different threads of past, present, and sometimes future. Most writers feels they have to include all their childhood, maybe twenty, thirty, forty years of smaller but significant (to the author) events. Otherwise, how will the reader understand the big change? This is where the storyboard comes in so handy. Memoirists create two or more storyboards, or maps of their storylines, then learn to weave them together like a braided rug.
I have two favorite examples of this. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is the simplest. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is more complex, because not only does the writer thread together the current story of training the hawk, Mabel, but also her backstory and that of writer T.H. White who was also a falconer. Reading these books, we wonder how it's possible. But dissecting them via a storyboard shows the route.
This week's writing exercise is a freewrite that offers a taste of what we explore in the workshop I'll be teaching on July 22 at the Loft. Set a timer or your phone alarm for 20 minutes and begin a list of the most important events in your life, so far. No censoring, no editing, no explanations needed, just let it get on the page. Then begin to ask yourself if any are related or linked. Can you create a chain of events from several or many? Do they have a common result or theme, teaching you some important lesson about life?
And if you're interesting in joining me on July 22, click here to go to the Loft's website for more information.
Finding and Hiring an Editor: Why They Help, What They Cost, and What to Look For
One of the best decisions I made for my recent books was hiring a professional editor--before I began submitting the manuscript for publication. You might say: Why bother? The agent/publisher will make you change stuff anyway. And don't publishers have editors?
Yes, you'll have to change stuff--if you're lucky enough to get that far with an agent or publisher. Yes, there are some publishers who still offer editorial help to their writers (small presses usually do, partner publishing does, a few big houses do if you're high on the list). But it pays to invest in your own book in today's competitive world. Make it the best it can be, before you try submitting it.
Editors come in various shapes, sizes, and price ranges. I worked as an editor, both freelance and in-house, for three decades and I'm familiar with the types of editors you can hire. Each type of editor plays an important role in getting a manuscript to where it's ready for submitting. You may be able to cover many of these bases yourself, but check the list and see what you feel capable of doing on your own and what you'll need help with.
1. Structure editor or coach. This is my area of expertise and the only kind of private editing I do anymore. I find many editors don't offer this level of work, assuming writers can handle it, but so many writers are unaware of its importance. A structure editor reads and evaluates your entire manuscript to analyze the whole-book structure, the character or narrative arcs, and the individual chapter arcs, among other aspects. Coaches help you learn how to do it--and are usually less expensive to hire because you do some of the work under their guidance. I mostly coach, because I like to work with writers who are trying to improve their skills for the next book. We use a special chart I developed when I worked freelance for different agents and publishing houses as a book doctor.
When structure analysis is complete, you have a complete revision list to use as you work on finishing the manuscript. You should know what's wrong, what's right, and how to fix it. Structure analysis does not take care of wordsmithing, or fine-tuning language (like copy editing). It is the building of the house--the framing, the foundation, the sheetrock--not the window curtains. In my opinion, you can't put up curtains if you don't have a frame, so most copy editing is useless if the structure isn't working.
Cost varies. To just get a manuscript analysis, you might pay $900-1000. I learned that often writers couldn't implement the changes, so I added an eight-week coaching time to the agreement, so I could coach them through the work, and charged a bit more for this service. You can pay $2000 or more, depending on who you hire.
2. Developmental editor. One publishing house I worked for, I mostly did developmental editing. It's hard work but great fun too. There are still quite a few developmental editors who work for the big publishing houses, helping the same writers for their entire careers. A developmental editor will go through your manuscript after you've finished and implemented the structural changes as best you can. They work with in-line comments (Word's tracking feature or another software) to ask questions about things like character motivation or plot threads that aren't yet realized on the page. They might question your sidetracks and comment on places in the manuscript where they stumble or lose interest.
Good ones are out there but hard to find. I ask around--colleagues, writers who have published, teachers of writing classes. A great resource are instructors at writing schools or local colleges. You can pay anywhere from $2000 for one read-through with in-line comments to many times that if you revise and need another read. Some charge by the page ($7-10 a page) or by the hour ($40 an hour). I've paid close to $2500 for top-level developmental editing for one of my books and it was worth every penny. I learned a lot too, and I'll be smarter my next book.
3. Copy editor. Copy editing is the final stage of cleaning up your manuscript before it goes out into the world of agents and publishers. They work at the word choice, sentence, paragraph level, correcting grammar and spelling, making sure the copy is clean. They correct cosmetic mistakes. But they can also fact check, check for continuity (consistency of how you describe stuff, like the yellow car or someone's name), and do some developmental editing as well. I find there are a lot of general editors who do both developmental and copy editing, but I prefer to get the developmental editing done first--otherwise, I might revise then have to copy edit again, wasting time and money. You can find copy editors on a google search. Sometimes, you can test them out with a sample, see how they do without investing too much. Copy editors charge by the hour or word, and the cost varies widely, depending on your skill as a wordsmith. Most copy editors charge an average of $35 an hour or between 14 and 16 cents a word. Many are able to edit about 10 pages an hour.
It's good to have two things before you hire on with an editor: (1) detachment from your work, as much as possible--by nature, editors find what's wrong and if you're not ready to hear it, the editing process can be super painful; and (2) a rapport with the editor. It's a fairly intimate process, having someone comb through your work, and it's nice if you can trust them and honor their skills.
If you're wondering about editors, use this information as your weekly writing exercise. What kind are you ready for? Search online and see what you find. Maybe start the process.
Keeping Track of Time--Timeline Organizers for Your Book
One of my online students is working on a memoir that threads two storyboards (see more about storyboards here). He wants to be able to plot life events in chronological order; although he is clear that the story may not include them all, it's helpful for him to have everything lined up so if an event needs a cursory mention, he knows where it falls.
He needed a timeline organizer.
I find timelines organizers essential for both memoir and fiction. I create them for my novel characters and my real-life people, so I can make sure I'm including correct dates, enough time passing between events, and realistic growth and change on the page for each person.
My student wanted a software application that would allow him to enter dates and events. Then to print out the timeline to work with alongside his storyboard.
He said he would do this manually, but it's cumbersome--and I agree. He also wanted to keep the timeline on his laptop so he could add events, take them out, and reprint as necessary.
I didn't even have time to respond to his email when he sent back a great link for this video which explains a timeline organizer using Excel. Click
for the link (and thanks, Tom!).
Use this link to explore whether your book is developed enough to benefit from a timeline organizer--it's your weekly writing exercise.
Selling Your Nonfiction Book on a Proposal Alone: An Interview with Katherine Ozment
It used to be common to sell nonfiction books via a book proposal--an expanded outline, a synopsis, marketing research for the topic, and sample chapters. I sold five books this way, back in the nineties, got good advances, and published happily. Many agents I speak with today are less keen on selling via proposal, unless the writer has an excellent track record and a market niche (audience) already established. Occasionally, I do hear of a great success story from one of my former students. This week, I wanted to share Katherine Ozment's story. Hopefully, it'll inspire other nonfiction writers who are putting together their book proposals.
I first met Katherine at one of my storyboarding workshops at Grub Street in Boston. I was immediately taken with her book idea--how to find grace outside of traditional religions--and her experience as a journalist. She signed up for my online storyboarding class after the workshop, and I got to watch her book structure evolve through the twelve weeks. By the end, she had an excellent outline and synopsis, ready to present to an agent.
Katherine has a wealth of writing experience as a journalist for
Boston Magazine and
National Geographic, among others. So I wasn't surprised to hear, not long after the class, that she'd signed with an agent. Her book,
Grace without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, was published last year to stellar reviews. It was named a Best Book of the Year by
Publishers Weekly and
Spirituality & Health and recently
received the Gold Nautilus Award in the category of Religion/Spirituality of Other Traditions.
Her search for an agent was short and sweet, but inspiring because she had a great proposal that took into account book structure, she knew her audience, and she knew what she wanted.
I interviewed Katherine this week to discuss the agent search and what she learned.
Tell us how you found your agent.
I had been writing a series of reported essays on parenting, but I felt that my 4000-word articles weren't doing justice to the topics I was writing about, topics such as my generation's inclination toward overparenting, raising kids in a digital age, and why so many people are leaving religion. I wanted to turn one of these rich topics into a book. My friend, a published author who was finishing a new parenting book herself, suggested that I get in touch with her agent. Once that personal connection was made, the rest came quickly. I emailed the agent some writing samples, along with a description of my book idea, and we set up time for a long phone call to discuss the possibility of working together.
Did you attend pitch conferences? If you did, did it prove useful?
Years ago I attended the Muse and Marketplace, held each year by Grub Street Writers, and I submitted a sample of another book I've been working on for years, a memoir about my brother's suicide. In that case, I was pitching editors, not agents, because I was (and still am!) more interested in how to make that book work structurally. I came home with a clear and honest assessment of the chapter samples, including a suggestion about structure that was very helpful. It was well worth the extra money.
What caused the "click" with this agent?
Because my agent came through the personal referral of an author I trust and admire, I felt a certain level of comfort from the start. From there, I was mostly curious about other books the agent represented and if we would be a good match. So I studied her website to see who her other authors were and the kinds of publishers they'd ended up with.
The "click" for me was really the immediate comfort level I felt when we talked over the phone. I appreciated her calm, thoughtful demeanor and just knew I would enjoy working with her. For me, that is perhaps the one most important component of an agent-author relationship: You have to like your agent as a person because you will spend a lot of time with him or her and not always the happiest of times, but also frustrating, deflating, and stressful times. Be sure you trust the person completely. If an agent gets on your nerves, talks over you, or just doesn't grab you for whatever reason, find someone who's a better fit in terms of personality. It's a lot like dating; make sure you notice if any alarm bells go off during the courtship phase. For me, I had none of those, and the relationship continues to be a strong one.
The agent read through my material, we signed a contract, and then we went through some rounds of editing on the proposal before sending it out. Different agents work to different degrees on the proposal writing itself, and I was happy that mine liked to get in and offer editorial comments and advice. People seeking an agent should be sure to discuss this aspect of the publishing process upfront and figure out if editorial feedback on the proposal is something you need a lot or a little of.
What would you recommend to new writers looking for their first agent?
If you have the time and money, meeting agents face-to-face at a conference during a short pitch session is a great way to go. It's like jumping into the deep end of the pool but with a little inner tube around you. You get to meet with an industry professional while also honing your sample material and practicing your pitch. So, even if you don't end up signing on with the agent you meet, you'll learn so much about the process, not to mention about your own work. Another good way to find an agent is to see which agents are mentioned in the books that you love. A word of warning though: If the book is big, the agent will likely be big as well, and as a first-time author you may not be able to land a giant fish. So read industry magazines with an eye for new, up-and-coming agents, the smaller fish trying to become the big ones. Last but not least, if you're struggling to land an agent, keep returning to the work. I wrote articles and essays for nearly fifteen years before I found my book and landed an agent. So don't give up hope. Just keep writing until you have something they can't resist.
If you'd like to check out Katherine's book, here's a link. You can also visit her website at
Launching a Debut Novel: Working with Publicists and Promotion
It's been a month of book birth announcements. Another student from my online classes and private coaching has just released her debut novel,
Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg has launched it with great panache too--with excellent reviews on
Kirkus, Booklist, Redbook,
and other publications. Writer Anita Shreve calls Eden "a masterfully interwoven family saga with indelible characters, unforgettable stories, and true pathos."
I first met Jeannie at a storyboarding workshop I taught at Grub Street in Boston where she was working on a two-storyboard novel, exploring the financial ruin of a family's historic home in seaside Rhode Island and the backstory of the matriarch who decides to reveal a long-buried secret and introduce the child she gave up for adoption in her teens. Weaving the two storyboards together was a challenge that Jeannie approached beautifully, and her excellent book is the result.
Once it was finished, she looked over her options for publishing. I interviewed her about her choices and what she eventually decided to do.
How did you get started with researching publishing options for Eden?
Two years ago, I met April Eberhardt at Grub Street's annual writing conference, Muse and the Marketplace. April describes herself as a "Literary Change Agent" and she introduced me to She Writes Press, an indie press based in Berkeley, California. I followed up with my own research on SWP, as well as similar presses. I was lucky to have a mutual friend with Brooke Warner, the publisher of SWP, and heard wonderful things about her. If you just follow Brooke on social media for a week or two, you will get a sense of her passion and energy and commitment to her work.
When Eden was ready for submission, I sent it to April and she agreed to take me on. We talked a lot about my goals: Whether it meant more to me to have the prestige of publishing with a traditional house, or whether I wanted to get my story out, have it be the best it could be, then move on to the next project.
We also talked about how much control I wanted to retain, and how much I was willing to invest in the book.
I decided not to hold out for a traditional house because: a) it was a long shot, b) I wouldn't have control over when they'd decide to release my book, and c) I'd be doing a lot of my own promotion anyway.
April was happy to explore any route on my behalf, but at this point in my life I was certain of which way I wanted to go.
Tell us about the process of working with She Writes Press.
After Brooke's initial read, she connected me with an editor named Annie Tucker who worked with me, chapter by chapter, for many months. I feel like every suggestion from Annie really made my book better. It was fun to work with her because she was just as excited about my book as I was. I was close to the ninth or tenth revision at that point! but who's counting?
The work we did was creative but was also very practical at times in terms of making decisions toward publishing, including many hours on brainstorming a new title. Our aim was to have our work done in time for my book to be included in the May 2017 catalog because I think my release is well suited for "summer-read lists" and a Mother's Day promotion.
The other two huge things that She Writes Press offers is top-notch cover design and distribution. I was involved in the conceptual process, and was then presented with about fifteen options to choose from. I can honestly say I loved all of them. I polled friends and family for weeks in order to decide on which one to go with--a lot of fun.
For distribution, SWP uses Ingram Publisher Services, the same service traditional publishers use, so from a retailer's POV, my book is no different. Ingram also has a terrific sales force and Brooke has worked tirelessly to develop a tip sheet for my book so the salesforce can go out and sell it.
In addition, SWP offers a large community of other authors to be a part of. We are all a part of a very active Facebook group where we share strategies and help each other.
You secured excellent blurbs and pre-publication reviews for Eden. Did you work with a publicist?
I hired Crystal Patriarche, whose firm, Booksparks, is under the same umbrella as SWP. My project manager at SWP and my publicity team are able to work together, again, just as if they all worked at a traditional house.
Booksparks developed my website last summer and helped me get the ball rolling in all sorts of ways in order to make my launch successful.
Anything else you'd like to share from your experience with other debut authors?
Make as much of investment in your book as you are able to. I think this is important. From editorial support to publishing, to publicity, I feel very satisfied in the process and in my book's chances to be well received. Even though my royalties will be higher with SWP than with a traditional publisher, I don't expect to break even on this book. If I do, wonderful!
But I'm also making this investment to set myself up for my next book which I am hard at work on.
Finding the Right Home for Your Memoir: A Success Story
I first met Elisa Korenne in one of my online classes. Elisa is a professional singer/songwriter with several CDs to her credit. She was writing a very intriguing story--about moving from downtown Manhattan to the wilds of northern Minnesota, for love.
I followed her progress in more classes and saw such a blossoming of the story. It's a simple tale, yet unique: the integration of cultures, the finding of oneself and home, all around her profession of music and storytelling.
Hundred Miles to Nowhere: An Unlikely Love Story,
has just been released from North Star Press. Click
to find out more. I interviewed Elisa to learn more about the process of finding the right home for her book.
Why did you decide on this press? How did you find out about them? Did you research others?
I decided to pursue North Star Press because two writers I knew and respected, one a friend and the other a writing teacher, had been published by them. I had done a lot of research about traditional publishers, small publishers, and agents, and had already gone down all of those roads. Amazingly, I had neglected to put North Star on my list despite what I thought had been exhaustive research.
When I finally thought about North Star, I recognized that it would be an ideal press for me and my story. For me because I am a first-time author and a small press would give me more attention. And for my story because North Star is based in outstate Minnesota, and my story is about moving to outstate Minnesota, so they would have the network to appeal a good portion of my target audience.
What made you choose this avenue over traditional publishing?
It was more that this avenue chose me!
I started trying to get my book into the world by pursuing literary agents. I had initial success--a good 30-40 percent requested full manuscripts after I sent them my query letter.
From their responses, it became clear that my story, about a singer-songwriter moving from New York City to rural Minnesota for love, did not have enough appeal (read: potential book-buyers) for agents to approach their contacts at larger publishers.
This led me to start reaching out to smaller publishers.
Tell us what kind of support you got during the publishing process.
North Star offered me a writer-friendly contract that included an industry-standard royalty package and a connection to a national distributor. They asked me to commit to buying a number of books at wholesale price up front. They were willing to work with me on adjusting their standard contract to be the right fit for me.
They provided editing and all the backend work of getting my book into the world, in both print and electronic format.
I was not expecting marketing support and was not offered it. From the beginning of my pursuit of publishers and agents, I was aware that I would be in charge of most of the marketing for the book no matter what press published my book, big or small.
I worked with a literary publicist to start my marketing campaign six months ahead of the publication date.
Anything else you think might help readers make good decisions about finding the right homes for their books?
One of the hardest things for me was to figure out where my book belonged in the publishing world.
My book was not the literary blockbuster of my grandiose imaginings. It was only when I looked at the realities of my story, the book market, and who I am as an author, that I was successful in finding a publisher.
I am very happy to be with a smaller, Minnesota-based publisher, as I know they have the connections that are the best fit for my book.
To learn more about Elisa's memoir and order a copy, you can check out her website at www.elisakorenne.com or find it at North Star Press or on
If You're Writing a Novel, Do You Know Its Category? An Agent's Perspective
One of the writers in my advanced online class posted this article on our weekly classroom discussion. She asked the provocative question: what genre are you writing in?
Fiction, I would've answered five years ago, because they were all fiction writers in this small group. But her question went deeper than this: what type of fiction are you writing and how will you present it to an agent or publisher?
Publishing has gotten quite complex at categorizing novels by certain qualities. Is it award-capable? Does it have a happy or mixed ending? Is it a commercial or literary plot?
It's absolutely necessary to know where your book fits,
before you begin trying to send it to an agent or editor.
The article she shared summed it up so well. Here's
It's an infographic, or diagram that shows three main types of fiction--literary, upmarket, and commercial. Check it out, and see where your book might fit. Consider any changes you might need to make to fit in one of these categories.
A Great Key to Building Your Story: Things Are Never as They Appear
I got some of the best writing advice this week: In a good story, things are never as they appear.
At first, I debated this advice: Why not tell the truth in story? I try to be honest in my daily life, so why would I be otherwise in my books? Nonfiction writers, you always tell the truth, so keep debating the idea. But fiction and memoir writers, listen up. There's something to this.
Consider that story often starts with false ideas, an unstable status quo, or agreements that are worn out and need replacing. In my classes, we look at something called the "false agreement" that characters embrace at the beginning of their narrative. Each character might have their own false agreement, unique to their journey in the story. In my current novel, one of the narrators believes that she can conquer all odds by herself, without help. This is a false agreement because the story continually puts her into situations where she can't go it alone. Readers can see this belief, or agreement she's made with herself, isn't going to last. But the character is blind to that. By the end, the character must acknowledge that the agreement isn't working. She must reinvent herself and her agreements. That makes up her narrative arc--the progress of this change.
I like to look at each of my main players to be sure the false agreement is in place, so they can have someplace to grow towards.
Then I thought of this writing advice in another way: the writer knows where the story is going to end up. What needs to happen by the last page. But if we lay all the steps out in a straight and predictable line, the story feels just that: predictable. So the writer's goal might also be to continually sidetrack the reader--create false ideas that might be true, but turn out not to be. In thrillers, these are sometimes called "red herrings." They appear to be a bonefide clue, but they are eventually disproved.
Then I thought of dialogue. Skilled dialogue contains something called "subtext," which is the undercurrent, what's not being said. In a way, good dialogue also follows this idea of "things are not what they appear." If characters speak the truth every time you have a scene with dialogue, there's little tension. It's like the straight and predictable path of truthful story. Tension comes from incongruence, the difference between what's said and what's really meant.
I began to research well-loved novels and memoirs. White Oleander by Janet Fitch offers the young narrator's false belief that she can manage her crazy mother and have a safe childhood. It creates such tension, even in the opening scene where the mother walks the edge of a rooftop while the daughter watches.
The Glass Castle, a well-known memoir by Jeannette Walls, is about another young narrator who also lives in a crazy family and carries, for much of the story, the false agreement is that they live a normal life.
In both cases, the reader can see this is nowhere near normal. But we read on because we wonder if we're right, and if we are, how the narrator will reconcile this disconnect.
In All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a large-scale false agreement exists between two countries at war. When two young people become allies, despite the war, it busts the belief that war always trumps humanity. They save each other at the end, disproving that false agreement, at least in a small way.
The trick to making this work is in two steps:
1. Create a strong false agreement to start your story.
2. Plan clues that make us readers uncertain about where it's going to go.
Good writing doesn't predict the end. It's anticipated but not expected, as one of my favorite teachers used to say. Readers track the hints and clues you plant, letting us know the false agreement isn't going to hold up, but we want to be carried along with high tension, not really sure of where you will land up by the last page.
Your weekly writing exercise is to consider the two steps above. Ask yourself, what is your story's (or your narrator's) false agreement. Then, how does it slowly get dismantled by the end. If you already have these two steps in place, track backwards from the last page and note how you plant the clues--be sure you aren't making the end too predictable, evolve too fast, or sidetrack into different false agreements.
This takes focus and discipline, as a writer, but the end result is a satisfied reader.
How Not to Give Up When You Get Feedback on Your Manuscript
A good friend recently attended a top-level writing conference, one where you have to be approved to enter. She was accepted and went with her manuscript in hand. She got some expert feedback from one of the published writers who taught there. She came home excited, shared the news with me. "He liked so much of it, and he had some great comments for next steps," she said. Her voice was full of enthusiasm and energy to tackle the changes.
Weeks passed. I emailed her to find out how the revision was going. She'd gotten sick, the kids had gotten sick, politics were making her crazy, in-laws had visited, spring vacation arrived. No time for writing, she said, knowing I'd understand.
I did. Life comes up, gets in the way, changes our plans. That's normal. But I also heard something else in her voice: overwhelm about the feedback she'd received. It was extensive, it came from someone who really knew what he was doing, and although it excited her, it also got her inner critic up in arms. She needed time to process the feedback and that's also normal, but she'd waited so long to take even a small step towards implementing it, she'd become strangers with her story.
That was a shame. Because it's a good, even great, story, and she's an excellent writer who could easily take it to the finish line.
I see this all the time. It's happened to me--often.
My friend is a first-time author, though, so she doesn't realize the danger she's in right now. We've discussed, she's avowed it wasn't the feedback at all (recall the illnesses, holidays, visitors). She's good with that, she's happy with the suggestions.
But, I thought, why isn't she writing? That's the real proof of it: if we write or if we don't.
Feedback is useless unless you do something with it. So how does a writer not give up when she gets feedback--even expert, excellent feedback?
Feedback creates questions. It's supposed to. It's designed to put cracks in the structure you've so carefully built to house your story. It's supposed to show where that structure has weaknesses or could be stronger. It's supposed to raise questions about the characters' motivations or the use of setting details or time markers or plot logic. One of my most troubling pieces of feedback, recently received from a beloved editor, was "I'm troubled by the logic here." Another way of saying, "As a reader, I stopped believing the story just here."
Super valuable to know about. But what do you do with such a comment? How do you keep writing?
Below is my step-by-step method for making good use of feedback. It requires two lists, but they have saved me many times. And I have finished and published books to prove it works. Try it, if you wish, and see if it works for you!
Your Weekly Writing Exercise: Feedback List and To-Do List for Revision
When you get feedback from readers, writers group, classmates, or editors, set aside an hour or two where you have quiet to think. You're going to make two lists: a feedback list and a to-do list. Start with the feedback list.
1. Make a list of ALL the feedback, even small changes suggested, even stuff you don't agree with. (I usually put the questionable comments at the end of the list.) Don't worry about making the list in any order--it doesn't matter. Mix large and small changes. This can take time. Its purpose is to help your brain absorb each item individually, reducing the sheet overwhelm. As you write the list, you may get ideas or solutions to the concerns of your reader/editor. See below.
2. I like to put the ideas/solutions on a separate piece of paper or document. This becomes my to-do list. It's much more proactive and inspiring than the feedback, which is all stuff that doesn't quite work. The ideas/solutions are the stuff that could work, if I try it.
3. If you don't get ideas when you're writing the first list, don't sweat it. It can take time for the inner critic's reaction (oh no! might as well give up!) to settle down.
4. Once you have the list as complete as possible, choose the EASIEST item to work on first. Make that change in your draft. Cross it off your feedback list.
5. Find the next easiest item; work on that. Cross it off. Keep going. Save the huge global changes for last unless you get an equally huge brainstorm and want to dive in.
6. Some changes, even small ones, have a ripple effect. Rather than pausing to address another idea while you're changing the first one, write the new idea on your to-do list. It'll keep. It makes most writers crazy (at least, it does me) to multi-task too much at revision. We tend to lose threads that way. Stay with what you're working on, finish it, cross it off, then go to the next item.
Using Writer's Digest "New Agency Alerts" to Find Your Agent--A Success Story
Heather Herman is the author of the novel,
Consumption. She says she
writes in the American Horror genre because it "provides a lens through which we can undress and view the timeless dis/ease of our society."
I had the good fortune to meet Heather by attending a class she taught at the Loft Literary Center with her agent, Barbara Poelle. They made such a winning team that I was curious about how Heather discovered Barbara, and vice versa.
After Heather graduated from her MFA program at New Mexico State University, where she worked with Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson, and Kevin McIllvoy, she began submitting her novel. Research was a big part of her first steps to finding an agent. First, she approached published authors she knew and asked if they might know or recommend an agent who'd be a good fit for her writing. She got some interest this way, as well as requests for partials (a sample of the manuscript, about 20-50 pages), but no agent.
"I started looking at the acknowledgements pages of authors whose works were similar to my own," she said. These acknowledgements can be in the front or back of a book, and often authors thank their agents, so it's a good resource. "From there," Heather said, "I researched certain agents to see if they might be a good fit."
Heather started a very basic spreadsheet to keep track of her agent research. "I listed agents, agencies, the particular section of my manuscript that I sent (some agents request different lengths than others), and their response. If I got a request for a partial, I'd make a note. If I got a form rejection, I'd also note it. And if an agent gave me any specific feedback, I'd put that in the spreadsheet."
Doing this helped her see what particular sections were working as well as how she could revise her query letter. She didn't attend pitch conferences, but she now thinks they would've helped her hone her query letter. As it was, she said, she learned as she went.
This next level of research generated more requests for partials, but it wasn't until she started reading
and sending queries to agents listed there--"they have an amazing resource with their
New Agency Alerts
," she said--that she found her agent, Barbara Poelle.
Barbara wrote a column for Writer's Digest about particular plots she was looking for. "One one of them was something like 'devours from beneath,' " Heather said. "It was like she was talking to me. My horror novel, Consumption, is that exactly."
She wrote to Barbara that day. "I said, 'Hey! Have I got the book for you.' Thankfully, she liked it, and I signed with her inside of a week."
"I can still remember everything about that moment," Heather told me. "I was visiting my in-laws in Portland, Maine, and my husband and I got caught in a giant snowstorm. I had to return Barbara's phone call from a landline because my cell didn't get reception. Afterwards, my husband and I braved the blizzard and headed to downtown Portland for a celebratory beer. The storm was apocalyptic, and we were the only fools out. It was perfect," given the subject of her novel.
Barbara requested a few minor changes, but most of the rewrites Heather ended up doing were at the request of her publisher.
I asked Heather: What would you recommend to new writers looking for their first agent?
"Persistence," she said. "I know that's the usual line given to people looking to get published, but it's so true. Even after I got my agent, it took three years for my book to get published. During that time, I never stopped writing. And you know what, some of what I wrote was total junk and will never see the light of day. But some of it, I hope, will."
She says that writers have to be able, at any given time, to know that they've got a query/story/prayer out there. "Because if you're not putting your work out into the great unknown, you don't have a chance at all. The only work that will ever be published is the work you send out."
For Heather, just being "brave enough to submit stuff" was the key.
"There are a lot of writers out there, and I guarantee there are some whose work is worse than yours who will succeed simply because they took a chance. If you don't try you can't fail, but you can't succeed either. So go on and just do it.
"Every rejection makes your writing stronger."
The Hunt for an Agent: Pitch Conferences, Research, and Other Fun Tools
Spring is the time of new birth, and that includes book manuscripts. Writers have been working hard all winter and want to bring their babies into the world. Perhaps even launch the process of looking for an agent.
Many of my clients and students are trying pitch conferences this spring: a place to meet agents face to face, and even get feedback on manuscripts. Two of the prime pitch conferences in the U.S. are hosted by
writing school in Boston and
The Loft Literary Center
The Loft's pitch conference is April 7-9 and Grub Street's pitch conference is May 5-7 this year. Each offers private "pitch sessions" with agents and editors.
Conferences can be expensive. Success (meeting the agent of your dreams, who falls in love with your manuscript) is far from a guarantee. It takes preparation and work to get the most from the experience.
One of my clients, Libby Jacobs, likes to attend the annual pitch conference sponsored by Grub Street, a Boston writing school, called Muse and the Marketplace. Last year, she met two agents at the conference's Manuscript Mart meetings who requested full manuscripts of her novel-in-progress. She's been busy revising all winter and is almost ready to deliver.
Libby says, "I find it an excellent way to establish meaningful contact with agents. In addition to over 100 conference sessions on both the art and commercial aspects of writing, authors can choose which agent(s) they want to meet" through information on Grub's website about what each agent is looking for.
Libby used their interests to narrow her list of agents to ones seeking women's fiction, magical realism, and historical fiction, the focus of her novel. She researched Publishers Lunch (PublishersMarketplace.com) and did Google searches to study each agent's blog and interviews, and specific titles they represented.
"When an agent available at the conference seemed especially promising," Libby told me, "I read at least parts of one of the novels that agent represented. In my query letter, I referenced similarities with my own book, a focus on art, music, magic, etc."
Libby likes Grub's conference because not only does she get one-on-one time with an agent, but the agent also reads the first twenty pages of her manuscript, query letter, and synopsis. She always got valuable suggestions.
David Mura, a colleague at the Loft where we both teach, attends the Loft's pitch conference in April. David has published nine books---two memoirs, a novel, four books of poetry, a book of literary criticism, and an essay on pornography. "But at present," David says, "I have no agent." His last two agents both quit being agents for various reasons, he told me, and he hoped to get an agent at the Loft Pitch Conference.
David is probably best known for his two memoirs, Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity and Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won the Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was a New York Times Notable Book.
"I looked for agents [on the pitch conference's list] who seemed to be a good fit first for my novel, which is a literary novel set in 1930s China, when the Japanese invaded," David told me. "My novel recounts the relationship between a half-Japanese/half Irish-American and the bastard sister of the warlord who rules over Manchuria." He was also looking for an agent for his book of essays on race.
"It was difficult to find an agent whose interests covered both books," David says. He wanted an agent of color, since racial themes were central to his work.
Before the pitch conference, he wrote out descriptions of both books and practiced presenting them. As a teacher and performer, he says he's comfortable speaking on literature. "But it's different when you're presenting your own work," he told me, "especially for someone like me whose family culture wasn't big on promoting oneself publicly. Also as a Japanese American writer who explores racial themes, I have to present a context for the complexities of my vision yet do it in a five-minute pitch."
He called the experience of a pitch session similar to "the agonies of speed dating." Since he's a published author with several books to his credit, the agents knew immediately that he was at least a legitimate writer. "All the agents I met with agreed to have me send them my novel. At the same time, it seemed fairly obvious how attuned the agent was to who I am as a writer and the type of work I do. I don't think I met an agent who actually could intuit a sense of my work in such a short time."
David guesses that pitch conferences might be better suited to authors in popular genres. After the conference, he only sent work to one agent. "It didn't pan out," he says. "Though the other agents asked me to send them work, I didn't feel they would be the right fit for me or I for them."
blog, where he writes about race, politics, culture and literature, is on his website: www.davidmura.com.
David added, "My experiences with publishing and agents have led me the conclusion that the publishing world hasn't caught up with the diversity of writers I find in my classes and the programs and conferences I teach at. Certainly we need more agents, editors, publishers and publishing houses of color. Recently, I was speaking at AWP to a nationally known writer of color, someone whose name everyone would recognize, but who, also, like me no longer had an agent. I feel a huge discrepancy between the reaction when I speak in public on race or present my work in readings, and my experiences with the publishing world. I've also had older editors or publishers who 'got' my work who were then replaced by younger colleagues who did not."
But there are success stories--happy marriages between writers and agents who meet at pitch conferences. At the Loft Pitch Conference, Kathleen Peterson met and eventually signed with her agent Marly Rusoff. To read about her experience, click
There's more to pitch conferences than snagging an agent, too. Many writers attend to update themselves on the publishing industry and what editors are looking for in books today. David was
interested in hearing from agents about the business as well. He says the first the day of the conference, an editor delivered a long session on writing novels
. Libby enjoys the wide range of workshops offered at Grub Street's Muse and Marketplace.
She also advises writers to check out writing conferences, classes (on site and online), and writers' groups; to keep writing and to consider pitching to new agents, especially in a recognized agency. New agents may have more time and energy to devote to you, she says.
A big question I often get from my clients and students: Should I bring my manuscript to the conference? No. You may be more than ready to hand the whole package to an agent who expresses even the slightest interest, but agents almost never take home manuscripts. If they want to read a sample, they'll hand you contact information and how to send it. When you feel ready, you can email them your pages from home.
If You're Not Writing about Social Justice Issues, Will You Get Published Today?
My interview two weeks ago with writer Amy Hanson, generated a flurry of response--and some thought-provoking questions. Amy's story is magnificent, so please scroll down to read it, if you weren't able to. She's a very hard-working writer who received a well-earned award and publication for part of her book.
A few blog reader, who enjoyed the article very much, also expressed concerns about the challenge of being published today. I sifted out the best questions from the emails I got last week. They were:
1. Does one have to write about social issues to get published?
2. Do I really have to do that much work (submit to contests, go to conferences and meet people, research publications)? Can't I just write something great?
Let's look at the social element first (question 2). It's very true that writers who network--meet people in publishing, make an effort to be seen--have a better chance of getting their work out. Perhaps faster, perhaps more easily. I know a woman whose father was a famous writer; early on, she got to meet his agent socially and her dad put in a good word for her work, so she got mentored and published quite young. Another writer I know landed a scholarship to Breadloaf, where he met his agent just because it is a great atmosphere to meet people in publishing. Another writer interned at a publishing house in New York and met the right people to launch her career. Some writers sign up for MFA programs largely because of the contacts they will make.
It feels slimy to me, the opposite of the pure path of making art. I also am practical enough to recognize that who you know is a factor in all the arts. Because art is also a business.
Question 1, above, is an even more tender subject. One of my blog readers put it very succinctly: "If I write about white people in little, day-in-the-life conflicts, is that passe?"
The arts have always been a society's voice in troubled times. Art speaks out where nothing else can or will. It's going to reflect the larger themes, the social justice issues, in an effort to help heal the society that is hurting. Art echoes our consciousness as human beings.
Publishers know this. It's not that the social justice issues are "more in vogue," as one blog reader put it. It's that our troubled times need the art that speaks out. When a writer is able to craft fiction or nonfiction that speaks out in a moving and beautiful way, it has a greater mission than the personal.
But that leads to the real question behind these questions: How much should I, as a writer, sculpt my writing or my career to meet these expectations?
For me, I start by writing my truth. What's in my heart, not what I think will sell well. My early drafts are all about me and the story. We are in our cave, alone. When I begin to bring the story out into the world, it ceases to be mine. I get feedback, I make changes as I learn how the story affects a reader. Good readers help me go deeper into the writing and I learn what the story really wants to say. Often, a larger issue emerges. It may still be about day-to-day conflicts, or it might grow into something bigger than that.
Along the way, I am still careful: it's still my truth. It might teach me more about that truth--stuff I didn't know I knew when I began to write this piece. You may disagree, but I personally feel that my writing must align with my values, my beliefs, who I am as a person, to really be my art.
In her biographical film, Joni Mitchell, talked about writing a song for the radio. She wanted to write a song that would be a radio hit. She wrote "Electricity," a great song, and it was a hit. She could do that--deliberately use her vast songwriting talents to craft a song that would be played a lot. But it still was hers, her art. She didn't, from what I could tell in the film interview, bastardize her values to get this hit written and aired. You can still hear "Electricity" and know it's Joni, all the way.
Your weekly writing exercise is a freewrite. Using the prompt, "my writing, my truth," explore the line you walk between writing and marketing. What are you willing to do, what aren't you? There's no absolute, no right or wrong, just individual choices. It's good to know yours.
What Is--and What Isn't--Your Business When You're Making Your Art: Words of Wisdom from Martha Graham
One of my all-time favorite sources of inspiration is this week's quote from dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, writing to her protegee, Agnes DeMille. It's been in my journals, posted on my walls above my writing desk, and shared with friends for many years.
During a slump this week, where I wondered why I was writing my book (I'm sure many of you can relate!), I happened upon the quote again. It inspired a freewrite about what is, and what isn't, my business when I'm making my art.
This week, your writing exercise asks you to go beyond craft into the purpose of writing in your life. Read the quote below then freewrite for 10-20 minutes about where you see the line between what you control in your art and what you are just a vehicle for. Anyone who has spent an afternoon writing and is astonished the next day when rereading the piece will understand this idea of "being a vehicle" for something beyond you.
Martha Graham writing to Agnes DeMille:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.
No artist is pleased . . . . .There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction: a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
Submitting Excerpts from Your Book to Small Publications--A Success Story
Amy Hanson started writing her novel, a braided narrative about a woman in Zambia and a woman in Seattle, when her third child was a year and a half. Not the ideal time to take on a book project, as she says. She'd always enjoyed writing, although music had been her focus, but she'd gotten letters from people who had read small things she'd written, asking if she'd ever thought about writing a book. An idea for a novel was in her head, and so she decided to just try.
Her first writing workshop with me was at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, about six years ago. Since then, Amy has taken most of my online classes, which she says worked perfectly for a mom with small children.
Two trips to Africa, two added narrators, along with endless reading and interviewing for research, and she is now revising her manuscript in my retainer coaching program.
But the best news: recently Amy submitted an excerpt from her novel-in-progress to the prestigious Iowa Review's annual fiction contest. "The Soles of Her Feet" won first prize and was published in the winter issue. Below is my interview with Amy, talking about how she achieved this.
This is a big achievement, Amy. I know you work very hard at your writing. What have you learned along the way?
In addition to learning the many elements of craft and how they all work together under a solid structure, I have learned the importance of doing your research and setting short term goals, often with the accountability of a writing group. I have learned to trust my voice as a writer and, even more importantly, the voices of my characters. But the biggest factor in making my story progress to this point has been to just show up. Those days I'm experiencing frustration, discouragement, or writer's block, I go back to those two words that started this whole journey: Just try.
Why did you decide to submit part of the novel for publication as a short story?
A big takeaway from an AWP conference I attended in Minneapolis was the advantage of publishing smaller excerpts of your work in literary journals. Intimidating to someone with nothing literary to list on her resume!
I had that goal hovering in the back of my mind for a year, but with three young children and a tight, frequently interrupted block of time for writing, it was a challenge to pull together a piece and submit it without compromising time spent on my book.
All changed last January when our dog, who warrants a novel of his own (think three bowel obstruction surgeries after swallowing soccer socks and a swimsuit), jumped our electric fence. I made it about three steps out our back door before slipping on the ice. Short story, I totaled my knee. I couldn't drive for eight weeks, so I turned that time of stillness into a makeshift writing retreat, working primarily on my book but also taking time to submit to The Iowa Review awards.
How did you choose this particular section?
This section of the novel really marks the beginning of my Zambian character Lila's story, even though it doesn't appear until much later in the book. For this reason, I didn't have as much backstory to add or weed out in order to make the characters and plot work. I felt it stood alone as its own story and had a clear story arc.
I also have a soft spot for the Promise Woman's story, another character in my book, and how someone so trapped and damaged can lead someone else to freedom yet is unable to manage it for herself.
There is also the word count to consider when submitting to a journal or contest. In this case, a 25 page limit. "The Soles of Her Feet" is comprised of three chapters of the book, which kind of made its own three-act story.
Did you have to rework it to become a story in itself?
I actually didn't need to do a whole lot of reworking to make this into a short story. Mostly trimming to get the length down, which taught me a lot about revising on a bigger scale: if it's not adding to a short story, it's likely not going to add to a novel.
I had a few of my writing partners at the time, along with you, read the chapters before they were turned into a short story. So I think much of my structural editing was done at that stage.
Tell us about the submission process-how many places did you query and how long did it take before you got a yes from Iowa Review?
I got very lucky. This was the first short story I submitted to a journal, which happened to be a contest. I simultaneously submitted the same story to another journal's contest shortly thereafter, which I notified as soon as I received word that I won
The Iowa Review's fiction award. I submitted at the end of January and was over the moon when they emailed to say I was one of fourteen finalists in April. I received word a few weeks later that I won first prize.
Why did you choose Iowa Review? What did you research about them before submitting?
They are known as one of the top literary journals, and I knew I was shooting really high by submitting to them. I have continued to be so impressed by the quality of writers they publish, and I am thrilled to now be published among them.
In addition to their high literary reputation and the amazing editorial staff who held my hand throughout this process, I love their commitment to publishing The University of Iowa Human Rights Index on their blog three times per year, which brings light to various injustices found around the globe. In their words, "to suggest the global political and socioeconomic context within which we read and write." The HRI currently features armed children in conflict. Social justice is something I am passionate about in my writing, along with the power of literature to make these issues personal and relevant, so to be published in a journal which maintains the same ideals as I has made for very rewarding fit.
And then there's the great Kelly Link, the 2016 Pulitzer finalist in fiction for her short story collection
Get in Trouble, who judged the award contest. To have had someone as brilliantly gifted, insanely imaginative and accomplished as Kelly merely read my story was a big enough honor, let alone to receive her kind feedback. I am grateful beyond measure.
Anything else you want to share with book writers who might want to submit excerpts?
I would first encourage them to become familiar with the journal to which they are submitting. Read an issue and see if that's a place they could see their work fitting in. Then I would encourage them to take that next step and just try.
Also, it's important to turn in your best work, taking the time to revise and edit well.
False Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Your Fiction or Memoir
What I call the "inner story" in fiction or memoir just refers to the transformation of a character or narrator through a series of outer events. It's pretty simple, but its success depends on something called "false agreements."
Without this transformation, and the false agreements that propel it, a story is just a list of crises.
Readers want to witness growth.
Transformation doesn't just occur, right? It usually happens from a series of events that create change. To make each change real for the reader, we have to consider where the character's journey starts. Usually, there is something they don't fully understand. Something they are challenged by.
I like to look at this as a kind of agreement. The character decides something is true--even if it isn't--and agrees to operate as if it is. As the story goes along, the writer challenges this belief, conviction, desire or hope or fear, this agreement with self, another, or situation, and slowly proves it false.
At the beginning, the false agreement might be quite intact. As the story goes along, each event breaks down this agreement. By the end, even the character must see that it's not real. By the end, there is a new realization.
What are some false agreements in story?
In Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander, the false agreement is that the narrator, a teenage girl, believes she can help her mother stay out of danger. This proves false when the mother decides to kill her boyfriend and ends up in prison, abandoning her daughter.
In Jeanette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle, the false agreement is that the narrator, a young girl, believes that her crazy family is eccentric but normal. This falls apart as the parents take more risks and put the girl in danger.
In Lief Enger's novel Peace Like a River, the false agreement is that justice can prevail--when a young girl is attacked by boys in town and her brother defends her, his family can bring him back into the family. Proven false when the brother runs away and aligns with a serial killer.
A false agreement will always be revealed as false by the end of the book. It may be accepted, then denied, then accepted again during the story--humans rarely travel a straight line in growth--but it is exposed by the end for what it is. Even if the character ends up in permanent denial, the reader has seen the agreement as fully false.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise: How to Set Up a False Agreement in Your Story
Understanding a false agreement means really knowing your character. If you didn't get a sense of the false agreement last week, here are some next steps.
Most writers start by describing the status quo that the story starts with. What does everybody put up with, to get along? What are the accepted beliefs?
Some examples of false agreements from different books I've read lately:
1. If I'm good enough, nothing bad will happen.
2. If I protect my sister, she won't be abused.
3. If I go there in person, I can find the truth.
4. If I keep silent, nobody will get hurt.
There are hundreds of possibilities, and yours will be unique. The "hook" of your story starts from this false agreement. Because something will happen to immediately cast doubt over this false agreement, right? That's what launches your story.
Once you have your false agreement sketched out (spend 15-20 minutes freewriting on what it could be), your next step is to chart how that agreement will get busted up.
In all stories, there are small and large epiphanies where the character gradually realizes the agreement may not be all it's cracked up to be. Maybe a hint of that is early in the story, within the first third. It can be a small epiphany, or turning point.
But the character often perseveres and tries to keep the false agreement going. Then there's a bigger event that cracks it even more: often, at this point, the character decides not to take this #%$$ anymore and reinvents themselves or gets new help or new clues. This might happen midway through the story.
There's is often a revision of the false agreement, a new false agreement, if you will, that is closer to the truth but not quite it. (Why? Because you still have half the story to get through, and false agreements create the conflict that drives the character. So you don't want to get rid of the false agreement entirely, not yet.)
Usually, near the end of the story, the smaller epiphanies result in a major one. At this point, the character sees truth.
They become different, fundamentally. And they make changes that really show how far they have come since the start of the story.
Andre Dubus on Writing Memoir--A Podcast from
I admire Andre Dubus's writing, both his fiction (
House of Sand and Fog) and his memoir (
Townie). This week, as I return from teaching in Tucson, instead of a lengthy post, I'm going to keep it short--and share an excellent podcast with Dubus, shared by one of the writers at my retreat.
Although the podcast is specifically about memoir, and whether a writer must live a dramatic life in order to write it, his comments can be helpful to writers from all genres.
magazine, which published the podcast.
When the World Goes to Chaos, Writing Becomes Even More Important--So What's Your Purpose with Your Writing?
I don't know anyone who thinks our world is perfect right now. My Facebook feed is so disturbing some days, I can't read or post. I'm not a born activist, but I do have concerns and strong opinions about what's happening nationally and globally, so that's when I turn to my writing.
I know from many published books that writing has an effect on the world. Just last week I got a letter from a reader of my first novel,
Qualities of Light. She lives in Switzerland and took months to read and study the book (in English, not her native language), and she says she was transformed by the story. Since the novel was released in 2009, that's a fairly long half-life in publishing. Still touching a few people here and there, and I'm grateful my words can make a difference.
This week, I'm in Tucson, Arizona, in the middle of the beautiful and peaceful desert, with a group of 13 other writers. I'm teaching a retreat on book-writing, and the writers come from all different backgrounds and writing genres. Some are just beginning, some are nearing publication.
Over dinner, we often discuss the state of the world. Yesterday, we expanded that into the effect our writing might have on that world. Writer Toni Morrison is recently famous for saying, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That's how civilizations heal."
So what is your intent, with your writing, in this world we're in?
Your weekly writing exercise is a break from craft, into the purpose of why you write, why we write. What's it all about, for you?
Weaving Storyboards--Which Is Your Dominant Story?
Natalya was in one of my storyboarding classes at Grub Street writing school in Boston a year and a half ago. She also describes herself as "an avid reader" this blog. She sent me a very good question about weaving together three storyboards for her current novel.
Storyboards are basic structuring tools that help a writer plot a storyline. Many books have more than one storyline. Consider The Time Traveler's Wife, which has three (the current story, the time travel story, the backstory). How did this author so successful weave these three storylines together, making a cohesive whole?
It's not easy. It's also impossible for most writers to manage just by writing through the story and never stepping back to examine the structure.
I recommend first creating separate storyboards for each storyline. You need to be clear that each storyline is strong enough on its own. Many times I've begun a book and not noticed when one of my storylines dropped out midway through. Readers will always notice and disengage. So do the structure work first thing, if you can.
Natalya also has three storyboards for her novel-in-progress. The first is the storyline of her main character in the present time. The second storyboard shows the same character during World War II. She says this backstory is "an integral part of the narrative and requires its own story line vs. being presented as flashbacks." She also has a third storyboard that shows the "secondary main character or, more precisely, the main character's main helper in the present time."
Her three storyboards seem to work individually, which is great news. But she is struggling with how to integrate them.
Research comes first. I always look at other authors when approaching this task. For instance, how does Anthony Doerr do this in
All the Light We Cannot See?
Does he alternate chapters by different narrator, or does he offer a chunk of chapters from one of the storylines?
The Time Traveler's Wife is another good resource. Two narrators, three different storylines. How does this author handle it?
There are only a certain number of combinations, so look first at published examples. Then, try modeling one. Take your own material and test it out using one of the structures. If you love
Time Traveler's Wife, do exactly the same with your first few chapters as Audrey Niffeneger does with hers. Test it out. When does she bring in the backstory storyline, when does she offer a chapter from the female character's point of view, when from the male's? Mimic the structure and see how you like it.
If that structure doesn't appeal to you, or doesn't really fit your material, try modeling from another book you love. Usually, within a few tries, I land on a structure that suits my book. Then I go back to my own material and make that structure my own. I tweak and change until it's uniquely mine. It's a tried-and-true technique in many art forms. Remember, you're only modeling the structure, not the writing itself.
Some writers also like to choose a dominant storyline and place those chapters at pivotal moments in the book (if you're familiar with the W storyboard from my classes, this would be points 1-5). That cues the reader that this is the most important story. Usually, that story is the present time one, narrated by the main character.
Your weekly writing exercise is to try this!
If you'd like to really practice this and get weekly coaching from me, check out my upcoming online class,
Storyboard Your Book!
starting on January 25 for eight weeks. Hopefully, this technique can help other writers struggling with the same question.
When Your Fiction Is Really about You (Even a Little), Do You Need to Protect Yourself?
One of my private coaching clients successfully finished her revision last year. Her next step was to find close ("beta") readers for the manuscript so she could get feedback on anything else that needed tweaking.
The novel, her first, is loosely based on her own true story. She chose her sister, two close friends (one of whom was a writer) and her daughter (also a writer). They read, they commented, but they mostly had concerns about the autobiographical nature of the story.
My client wrote me: "A couple of them have asked me whether I want to put this story out there. The themes are so universal I have never been too worried about [it being autobiographical]. But it has caused me to think about whether I should try to change the location, place names etc. Or even use a pseudonym. I know you caution about having family/friends read too soon, perhaps for this type of issue, but I couldn't go much further without this step."
First, readers who know you will ALWAYS wonder if your fiction is autobiographical, even if it's not. They want to know how you came up with the ideas, how you were able to present them so authentically in the story. They immediately suspect that if you're writing about divorce with such poignancy, you've been through it too. It's always been my experience, as a writer.
It's also a kind of "duh"--authenticity in story comes from two places: either we lived the experiences or we have compassion and good research skills and can capture the experiences vicariously. I work with hundreds of writers and easily 75 percent start first novels from a true-life experience.
Such feedback--do you really want to put this out there?--is valuable because it may be telling you that more revision is needed. You may still be processing the story.
Early drafts are often processing drafts--the writer is getting the experience on paper for the first time, perhaps, and using the character to understand it. (This is why many first novels never see the light of day. We've done our work with them and they don't need to be out there.) When the processing is over, though, and you are still fascinated with the story, you move to the next step: How can you make this truly fictional? Or do you want to publish this as a true-life novel, which is also a respected genre?
Once I've processed the true story behind my fiction, I begin to see what I can change. I usually change the location, the era (year), the backstory, the gender, and the appearance of characters as much as I can. An old man becomes a young boy, a small town becomes a village in another country. As I do this, the story takes wings in a way it couldn't when I was sticking to what really happened.
So, the answer isn't a simple one. If you are concerned from these kinds of reader questions, ask yourself if you've got anything else you can change. What are you still wedded to, in the true story? What can you let go of? Or are you fine about the autobiographical part being exposed? Your choice entirely.
An exercise to find the answer: If you're a fiction writer, choose one of your pieces of writing and go through it as a curious reader might. Make a list of anything that mimics your own life, in any way. Then pick three of these items to change.
The Myth of Going It Alone--Why Book Writers Need Community
My fall online classes are ending this week, and the groups are loathe to leave each other. They've bonded terrifically this semester, which often happens in these classes. Somehow, online learning can foster a kind of intimacy among writers that I don't always find in in-person classes.
They are exchanging email addresses and committing to exchange work too, after we end. I am glad--it's a strange myth among writers that we need to go it alone.
I believe writers need community to thrive.
A blog reader from New York wrote me last week about this. She has joined two writing groups and loves the feedback, but she says she has a challenge. It's hard to discipline herself to write. "
It appears to me that I might be a one-on-one person that needs a writing companion to be accountable to for my writing," she says.
Many writers feel this way. I've been in monthly writing groups and weekly writing groups, and I love the feedback, but I also need other structures to keep myself going as a writer. One is online classes--I teach them, but I also take them. I've just signed up for one starting in February. The accountability of submitting work each week is precious.
I also work with several writing partners who I met in online classes. They don't live close to me, so we can't meet in person, but we like each other's feedback and we're determined to keep writing, so we send each other chapters or scenes each week.
Why do we believe the myth that we need to go it alone? As the blog reader said, "Things come up that detour me from writing." For me, having that writing partner waiting helps me figure out what my next sentence will be.
For some of us, this is a season of giving. Give to yourself too. Your weekly writing exercise is to make a list of 5-10 writers you could partner with. Even just to check in every Sunday night by email or phone to say, "I wrote this week." Or "I'm having trouble getting started. Can you give me a prompt?" You'll find this kind of simple sharing is a wonderful gift that busts the myth of artistic isolation.
We're all in a community. Maybe you just need to find yours.
The blog will be on holiday break for two weeks. Have a happy new year!
Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing a Book
Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, poems, columns, and articles. Short stuff. Short stuff doesn't require that much organization. I had a good word -processing software. I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example. I used a spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.
Then I began writing books. Within months, pages accumulated. Way beyond anything my short stuff generated. I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.
I began struggling with my trusty word-processing software. How hard it became to keep track of each version, the corrections I made, and what I'd missed. I literally had to print each draft to double-check it. Sure, I could do a whole-document search for word repetition, for example, but it was beyond clumsy. I began looking around for something more streamlined.
Twelve books got written and published before Scrivener came along. It has saved my writing life. And many of my students' and clients' as well.
There have been a lot of programs that try to help writers both organize and write. Some of them include WriteWay Pro, Z-Write, WriteItNow! and Rough Draft. Some writers swear by a program called Ulysses. They offer a list of contents or topics on one side of the screen and an editing or writing desktop in the center. But many are plain text, no formatting ability.
Scrivener was developed by a writer in Cornwall, UK, who was unsatisfied with the mechanics of what was out there. He wanted to be able to import images, different fonts and text, and other options into his documents--easily--and still have the ability to keep track of the overview via a sidebar list.
To me, Scrivener is light years beyond anything I've used--and you may agree if you've tried it. It does take setup time, to import your current document, but for the way I write books, it's perfect. I can craft "islands" or scenes and log them as individual documents on my sidebar list, then begin to group them into folders as my chapters build. If I am missing a scene, I can easily create a placeholder for it on the sidebar list. Best of all, if I decide scene 2.4 really belongs in chapter 10, not chapter 2, I can move it on the sidebar list and it automatically moves in the document itself.
Scrivener also takes care of the multiple versions of any scene, chapter, or act. The feature called "snapshot" allows you to take a picture of each version. They are stored with the current version and can be accessed in a click. You can decide part of an earlier draft was way better and paste it in with no trouble. Try doing that in Word--yikes.
Another thing I love about Scrivener is the ability to bring in visual or written research and view it either in the notes or in a split screen as you work.
There are so many features of Scrivener that I haven't even tapped, even though I've taken four classes on it. I use what I need, and when I'm ready to learn more, I go for another class.
Scrivener for ipad recently came out. I'm still learning it, but there are tutorials if you're interested. All versions are available at
both for PC and Mac. They offer a 30-day free trial, so you can test drive before buying.
It's good to set aside 2-3 hours to set up your draft in Scrivener. You are given different templates to start with (I use the fiction template). Then you basically copy and paste in your islands, scenes, or chapters from Word or Pages. It helps to sit with someone who knows Scrivener, as I did, while you get set up. There are also some good
I also recommend taking a class from Gwen Hernandez, who wrote
Scrivener for Dummies.
Gwen is an excellent instructor and her online courses take you through basic setup and use of Scrivener tools, through advanced levels. Check out her
when you're ready to get started.
I wish I'd found Scrivener many books ago--I've only been a fan for four years. But it's changed my writing life. I can't recommend highly enough (and I don't get paid to say that).
Your weekly writing exercise is to download the free trial, if you haven't tested it out. If you already use Scrivener, check out the tutorial link, above, and try working with snapshot or one of the other extras.
Pitch Conferences: How to Meet and Greet with Agents
Many of my students and clients are signing up for spring pitch conferences, where they hope to pitch their book to a few agents. These "meet and greet" events are currently one of the best ways to get face-to-face with agents, hear them talk about their lists (the books they represent) and preferences, and learn about the publishing industry today.
When you're ready to market your book, and if you've decided you want to get an agent, there are a couple of ways to start. You first need to research the agents. There are so many right now. Each specializes in a certain kind of book. Just like a realtor shows houses in a certain price range or neighborhood, and knows their clientele in that area, most agents have a "stable" of editors they like to work with. It takes time to build this stable, so more experienced agents are in more demand.
If you're sending out queries (requests that agents look at your work), you can do it cold, just by picking agents online or from the acknowledgements in books you love. Agents receive hundreds of queries a week, sometimes. Cold solicitation is a hard game--your chances of getting a positive response are about 1 for every 75 queries you send, according to a colleague in the business. That's depressing.
At pitch conferences, you get much closer. You're in the same room with agents you want to approach. You get to hear them talk, maybe talk with them, even pitch your idea one-to-one in a pitch session.
You also get exposed to both experienced agents and newer agents. New agents are trying to build their list, so they are often more willing to consider new writers.
How Pitch Conferences Work
Most pitch conferences offer a program: workshops or breakout meetings on different aspects of marketing your writing, plus pitch sessions.
Pitch sessions are why most writers come. They are brief but potent. Each session lasts five to eight minutes, usually (varies by conference). Some conferences offer each attendee three pitch sessions, some only one session--registration price goes up with more pitch sessions, of course. You request the agents you want to pitch. You prepare your pitch and any questions.
How do you decide which agents to request? Before you register, browse the conference's list of attending agents. Then go do your homework: Look up each agent's website, see what they're looking for. Some agents have great blogs and you can read about what they're seeking. If their website is more generic (all memoir, all commercial fiction), it helps to read through their list of clients, then go to amazon or another online bookstore and search out these clients' books. Don't just choose agents because they fit your genre--that's too much of a wild card. Look for the style of writing they love. Are any of the books they represented remotely like yours?
Study the first pages for voice or subject matter (you can do this free on amazon.com). Compare your voice and subject matter.
The goal is to first eliminate agents who are not a good match for your book. Be ruthless about this. You don't want just any agent--you want someone who will fall in love with your story. The closer you get to matching your book to an agent who loves the same kind of writing as you write, the more successful you'll be.
Once you've chosen your agents, take some notes. When you pitch them, it's helpful to refer to one or two books they've represented, so they know you've done your homework and have selected them carefully.
What to Bring to the Pitch Session
Write out a premise (a short, three-minute pitch) for your story. Work on it! Read the back-cover copy on published books to get a sense of what a premise should be. Usually, it's about four to five lines long, or three minutes if read aloud. Polish it until it's friendly, interesting, tense, upbeat--whatever your story's tone might be.
Practice your pitch a loud. Do this a lot, until you can say it without notes. You'll be seated across from the agent, looking at each other. Eye contact is good; reading from a page isn't as good. This may well be your next business partner in publishing, so you want to see how the chemistry is, also.
The agent will often ask questions. How much have you written, how many words? Is this your first book (nothing wrong with that--your "debut" novel or memoir or nonfiction)? Do you have a platform (social media followers, a blog that is connected to your book)? Again, if you don't, don't sweat it.
Don't bring your manuscript or even a sample. Agents usually don't want to lug anything home with them. All you want from the session is an interest in seeing your query or sample pages after the conference. They'll give you their business card, if they're interested. When you get home, you email them with the subject line of "per your request at ________ Pitch Conference" or something like that. Include what they ask for.
If they say it's not a good match, thank them for their time. They know what they can sell, what they can't. You might ask them what they'd suggest, if anything, revising. Maybe they'll give you a couple of pointers. This is valuable!
Even if you get a no, it's not wasted time; you've learned something. You've gotten a chance to pitch your book and see how it feels.
Your weekly writing exercise this week is to write a pitch. Try it, even if you're not conference bound.
Gratitude Game--Celebrate What's Working in Your Writing Life
These past few weeks, I've experienced an unusual stall-out in my writing. I couldn't locate any still point inside, or that "necessary boredom" that writer Dorothy Allison says is a prerequisite to writing well. It was as if my creative heart was too sore to create.
I knew that writing could actually be the way to come back to myself, get away from the incessant barrage of crises. But I was hard pressed to find the way in.
Then I remembered a friend's game, something she likes to play when she's down and out. She calls it the gratitude game. It's pretty simple: make a list of what you're grateful for. Or find a partner and go back and forth, saying one gratitude item each, then another.
I thought, why not try it? I wanted to get back to my writing!
So I began listing what was working, what was still alive and well in my writing life. Here's the short list:
1. I have three fabulous writing partners who exchange work with me.
2. I've mastered Scrivener enough to not struggle with it--and it makes my writing easier.
3. My second novel is done--although new feedback will cause some reworking, that's minor.
4. I have a great space to write in. Lots of sunshine coming in the windows, now that the sun travels lower in the sky.
5. Winter is traditionally a great time for me to get a lot of writing done.
6. I'm reading three great books at the moment, full of juicy images, and plenty of inspiration.
7. My family supports my writing whole-heartedly.
8. I posted a notice on FB that my second novel was almost finished and I got tons of likes and responses, including a few people who pre-reserved it on my amazon page (wow!).
9. I made a cool collage for one of my elusive characters.
10. I have two really great ideas for my next books and have begun to pitch them.
11. I pretty much adore writing. Even when it sucks.
12. I think I'm getting steadily better as a writer, which is heartening.
Your weekly writing exercise, in honor of the American holiday of Thanksgiving this week and the good spirit that resides in all of us, is to play the gratitude game with your writing--or your life.
I hope it'll give you new courage, as it did me.
Here's a quote by writer Ben Okri, to help you along: "Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger."
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back--Getting Your Work Out in the World
It's been an up and down week. I got news on Monday of a student whose short story was accepted by a very prestigious journal and who'd been nominated for an equally prestigious award. I also heard from three clients whose books were accepted for publication this month. Very sweet.
I also got an email from a student, raw from having pages of his manuscript critiqued by two colleagues at the university where he works. He was soldiering on but underneath his good questions--
how seriously do I take these comments?
--I could hear the discouragement. "It's like that old Bruce Springsteen song," he said. "One step forward, two steps back."
Another colleague who just sold her manuscript to a very good publisher said she'd gotten feedback from her agent over the summer that depressed her so much, it took weeks to get over it. Basically, a major rewrite, and she'd already spent years on this novel. Was it really necessary? She ate a lot of ice cream and eventually got back to her desk, made a revision list, and dove in. "Lucky I did," she said, "because I didn't see the problems staring me in the face. Now that it's going to be published, in this new version, I'm embarrassed I thought it was finished before."
We don't just get to learn the craft of writing a good book, which takes a long time (trust me!). We also have to learn how to get it out into the world. And the world isn't automatically a friendly place for many artists.
This week, I joined a private Facebook group for rejection support. No kidding. These exist, and they're actually quite wonderful. They are made up of mostly published writers who are needing help getting their new writing out into the world. We post our rejection letters, one after the other. I'm new to the group so still learning the ropes, but it has a feeling of hope, enthusiasm, and encouragement, despite the downer of a topic.
If you're planning to submit your work, there are skills to gain. One is to become friendly with rejection.
I don't think it requires a thick skin, though. My best writing comes from a place of vulnerability and honesty about what I see and want to write about. If I cover that over too much, I don't write as well. So the goal, for me at least, is to view the process as a kind of game instead of a desperate search for acceptance and acknowledgment. Because publishing can be that, for many writers. And the danger is, when publishing or not is tied to your self-worth as a creative person, you begin to die a little every time someone says no.
Why do that to yourself?
Easy for you to say, you might think. Yes, I've published a lot. But each time I send something out, I still have the butterflies. I still feel the desperation. The need for someone out there to love it, unconditionally. I think a lot of published writers do.
I recently came across a method that I'm trying out, along with the Facebook rejection support group: set a goal for a number of rejections, not a number of acceptances. If you're shopping for agents, make a long list (maybe 100 to start) of ones you've researched and like, and be willing to (1) not hear back from at least 25 of them, (2) get no from another 50, (3) get comments and some small encouragements from 10, and (4) possibly have 15 who like your query enough to ask for more. That's about the going average, right now.
The theory is simple: it's a numbers game, and the more you submit, the higher your chances on getting that "please send more" response.
You may not be close to sending out query letters, but if you are, here's a great article from the
on this method of accumulating rejections. It's your weekly writing exercise this week.
One step forward.
Nonfiction Book Success--The Challenge of Telling Someone Else's True Story
One of my favorite kinds of emails come from past students in my book-structuring classes whose books are being published. Three such emails came to my inbox this week, and I wanted to share the story behind one of them in this week's blog.
When I first met journalist Ed Orzechowski in one of my classes, his book project fascinated me. It wasn't an easy task to write a true story about a patient at the infamous Belchertown institution. But Ed persevered.
You'll Like It Here,
the true story of Donald Vitkus, patient #3394, is being released this month from Levellers Press. I asked Ed to share some of the process of building a book on someone else's true--and horrific--story.
Abandoned by his unwed mother during World War II, Donald Vitkus became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was 27 days old. Six years later as "Patient #3394," he was committed to Belchertown State School, where he was labeled a "moron" with an I.Q. of 41. Like hundreds of other institutions across the country, Belchertown was a de-humanizing environment of barred windows, locked doors, and brutal regimentation.
Resistant to authority, Donald refuses mind-numbing medication, smokes contraband cigarettes, joins an escape committee, and learns of the outside world on a black-and-white TV. He later serves in Vietnam, searches for his family, marries, and earns a college degree-all in a lifelong battle to convince others, and himself, that Donald Vitkus is not a moron.
You'll Like It Here
is a story of the resiliency of the human spirit.
Interview with author Ed Orzechowski
What's your background as a writer?
I'm a retired high school English teacher, and moonlighted for several years as a radio news reporter. As a freelancer, I've written many newspaper and magazine pieces, including columns, op-eds, and features.
How did you get interested in this story?
My wife and I are board members of an organization that advocates for individuals with developmental disabilities. My sister-in-law is severely autistic. In 2005 I arranged a book signing at a local community college for the founder of our organization. He had self-published a book about a federal class-action lawsuit he initiated over horrifying conditions at Belchertown State School in western Massachusetts and other institutions. At that signing, a 62-year-old student named Donald Vitkus told me he himself had grown up at Belchertown, and was looking for someone to write his story. That conversation evolved into this book.
How did you begin writing it? What research did you take on?
Even though this wasn't the story of my own life, I took a couple of memoir writing courses. Our first assignment was to write just one scene, and that's what I did.
Most of the research occurred at my dining room table, interviewing Donald. I recorded our talks (nearly 24 hours in total), transcribed them, and worked from those notes. A major plus was that Donald had acquired detailed records from his years in the institution, many of which are reproduced in the book. I talked to his family, other former residents of the state school, a historian with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, visited libraries and museums, read related books, and, of course, searched the web.
Describe your working relationship with Donald. How often did you correspond? What did you talk about? How much artistic license did you take in creating a readable story?
We met intermittently over a few years. In our initial talks, Donald related incidents that occurred while he was living at Belchertown, many of them painful and disturbing memories, some of them humorous. He told me about his Vietnam service, his work, his education, and his family. He shared everything. It was difficult to establish a time line because his memories were scattered. I pursued whatever piqued my interest, and sometimes he cried. Over the course of these conversations, we became close friends.
The challenge was to reconstruct scenes and dialogue without compromising fact. This is a true story, told in first person from Donald's point of view. For lack of a better term, I call it narrative nonfiction. I made every effort to use Donald's voice, to remain accurate and faithful to his account. In the interest of privacy, I changed a few names. But there are no fabricated incidents because we both wanted to convey what actually happened in this community within a community, and how those eleven years locked away from society affected his entire life.
How long did it take?
I laugh because the title of those initial courses was "Writing the Nine-Month Memoir." It took me eight years.
What were the steps to complete the book?
The interviewing was fascinating, and the transcribing tedious. At the same time, I needed to learn how to write a book. I had never written anything longer than a few thousand words, and knew nothing about structure, flow, dialogue, story arc, etc. I joined writers' groups, attended dozens of workshops and conferences, and took all three parts of your online class, Your Book Starts Here, through The Loft Literary Center. Your guidance and the feedback from other students were invaluable.
Anything else you'd like to share with readers here?
Two things. First of all, what a privilege it has been to be allowed intimate access inside the life of another human being. Second-now that our book is about to launch-the discovery that there's a lot more work involved in marketing a book after you finally hold a finished copy in your hand.
You're invited to meet Ed and Donald at the book launch on Sunday, November 13, at 4:00 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park Street, Florence MA 01062.
You can purchase a copy of the book
Using Poetry Even If You're Not a Poet--What Poems Do for the Creative Brain
I'm only a marginal poet. I've had one poem published and written maybe ten others, kept in a drawer. But I love reading poetry. It does something weird and wonderful to my brain.
In honor of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for "having created new poetic expressions," I wanted to share this poetry experience and an exercise for this week.
Recently a poet friend moved. I visited her and took home two bags full of poetry books. Collections from some of my favorite poets but also books on why we write and read poetry. I'd just sent in my novel and was waiting for agent feedback so I felt kind of dry--desert-like, actually. I wanted to get moving on the next book, all set up in Scrivener and waiting for me. But I needed a little inspiration.
Rainy day, perfect for poetry, I thought. I settled down with tea and the stack of books.
Midway through the first volume, I had to get up and get a pen and paper. Ideas for my own writing were flooding in--vastly different from the poems I was browsing but somehow inspired by them. A small description of evening by Jane Kenyon made me remember evenings my character might have lived through, complete with the way the late summer light slanted into a room. Stanley Kunitz urged me to look for the constellation of images that follow every writer, and I began to think of this for my characters too. What images followed them around in their lives?
Your weekly writing exercise is to grab a poetry book and spend twenty minutes immersing yourself. You may not like the poems--or any poetry, for that matter. But the rhythm of poems may unlock something beautiful in your brain.
If you'd like to do this right now, click on these links:
30 great poems everyone should read
Paragraph and Line Lengths--How They Affect Your Story's Pacing
I never paid much attention to paragraph or sentence lengths. I just wrote, felt satisfied if I got the story down. Then, in the late eighties, I got a job as a editor at a publishing company in the Midwest.
As an editor, I noticed that I had a visual reaction to a person's writing: how it looked on the page, how dense or light. How much white space or how much text. Even before I began to read, I had a sense of whether I would be engaged, just by how the text looked.
Blocks of dense text turned me off. I was paid to read them, so I did, of course. But I had to work harder to get engaged.
I learned about pacing: how fast a story moves for the reader. Pacing is half mechanical. Long or short sentences, big or short words, all affect pacing. Shorter sentences and shorter words usually read faster. Longer sentence require the reader to slow down and work harder.
Seeing writing from an editor's eyes--what a change that was. Writing became much more than just telling the story. I began looking at my own writing and changing the sentence and paragraph lengths.
Whenever I read a piece of writing with same-length paragraphs, I noticed a sleepy feel. Another clue!
A blog reader wrote me about this: "Paragraph [length] must be terribly important because as I read and change them the adventures seem to grow in importance." She's absolutely right.
She wanted me to share any rules I knew about how to work with paragraph lengths. There's aren't really rules--it's a kind of rhythm you begin to catch as you gain in writing and editing skill, but here are a few guidelines I picked up as an editor. See if they are helpful. If so, try one as your writing exercise this week.
Working with Mechanical Pacing
1. Print your pages and lay them side by side. Squint at them. Notice where you have large blocks of text. Notice the white space. (Thanks to writer Alex Chee for this tip.) This is very hard to see on the computer screen, easy to see in an e-reader or printed out.
2. Go back into your document. Read the dense paragraphs out loud. Look for any natural pauses where you could break them.
3. Break out dialogue. Any place you have dialogue embedded in a paragraph of other text, separate it out.
Here's an example from a recent class--a before and after so you can see the difference. The writing is still rough, but the paragraph changes made a big difference in pacing.
Sandy climbed the stairs and felt her belly heave. Pregnancy made her feel like a sea mammal, only she didn't have the luxury of water to buoy her up. Swimming through the hot Alabama air wasn't her idea of blissful motherhood. She could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment down the short hallway. It was probably her sister. It had been weeks since she'd promised herself to call Jeannine and get someone to come for a couple of hours in the afternoon, just to help with groceries or laundry. Jeannine's idea had rankled at first, and Simon wouldn't hear of it, but her sister said she'd even pay the first few weeks, an early birthday present for Sandy. Sandy didn't want to buck Simon but as she grabbed the top of the railing at last and pulled herself up to the landing, she promised herself she'd call as soon as she got inside and turned on the a/c.
Sandy climbed the stairs and felt her belly heave. Pregnancy made her feel like a sea mammal, only she didn't have the luxury of water to buoy her up. Swimming through the hot Alabama air wasn't her idea of blissful motherhood.
She could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment down the short hallway. It was probably her sister.
It had been weeks since she'd promised herself to call Jeannine and get someone to come for a couple of hours in the afternoon, just to help with groceries or laundry. Jeannine's idea had rankled at first, and Simon wouldn't hear of it, but her sister said she'd even pay the first few weeks, an early birthday present for Sandy.
Sandy didn't want to buck Simon but as she grabbed the top of the railing at last and pulled herself up to the landing, she promised herself she'd call.
As soon as she got inside and turned on the a/c.
Kid Lit! Writing for Different Young Readers--Who Is Your Best Audience?
Many writers want to write for kids. They raised their own children on books, maybe thought
I can tell a good story, too! Or they love to illustrate for kids and want to fashion a story around their illustration. I get lots of questions about kid lit, what ages to gear a particular story to, how to sell your children's, middle-grade, or young adult book these days.
First, it ain't easy. Children's literature is one of the most competitive arenas in publishing. Many agents speak in frustration of writers who think they're writing for a young adult audience but have a simple storyline and youthful language that's more suited to the Harry Potter crowd. Or writers gearing towards young kids but including sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, which aren't topics that parents (buyers of middle-grade and children's literature) go for.
You have to know your audience, know the market you're writing for. You have to read up on what's out there now, what subject matter you can include, how simple or complex your plot.
Another depressing factoid: If the topic you adore is fashionable now, it probably won't be by the time you approach an agent. The industry moves fast, just like fashion. One agent recently told me, "We aren't even reading vampires anymore."
OK, that's the bad news. Good news is that if you have a cool idea, present it well to the right age of audience, and find agents or publishers who want that kind of book, you've got a shot at it. Here's a checklist to consider when you begin.
These are also called read-aloud books or beginning readers. They are one story, rather than chapters (see chapter books, below). They are heavy on illustrations. In fact, the illustrations often tell the story more than the prose (but the story has to work, even be unique and interesting). The text might be mainly action and dialogue, because the illustrations give the child most of the other parts of the story. Normal word count is 2000 words or less.
Young chapter books:
When a kid's book is long enough to be split into chapters, it's called a young chapter book. They can be easy readers, for younger kids just starting to read by themselves (kindergarten through roughly third grade), or chapter books with more complex stories, even subplots, for children second through fourth grade. These age groups vary, of course, by child. Illustrations no longer drive the story--and they may not appear on every page. Instead, the text adds detail, and the story is longer (average length is less than 15,000 words, though).
Middle-grade readers are usually eight to ten years old, sometimes slightly younger. Their big topic is
How do I get along with my friends?
Peer groups are where it's at in MG stories. Characters need to be thirteen or younger. Readers always read up. So young kids will read about kids slightly older than themselves, more often than about kids their age. Choose topics that have to do with loyalties, friendships, and peer groups at school. Read up on this genre--the language is often simpler than YA. Some MG books, like
Because of Winn-Dixie,
have very simple plots (rescuing a dog in a supermarket). Some get into slightly more complex topics (divorce, death of a relative). Rarely does MG deal with very edgy topics like suicide, drugs, alcohol, or sex--that's more YA. Avoid risky language with MG. Readers are still finding their way out of the familiarity of home, just beginning to test their independence in the world. But things are shifting all the time, so it's good to stay on top of the current trends. According to agent Mary Kole (see below for her fabulous writing book on children's lit), the average length for MG novels is 35,000 words, considerably shorter than YA.
Typically, the YA audience is
thirteen and older, and the younger YA readers will read up too, going for main characters about two years beyond their age. YA topics are much edgier than MG, just like teen life. One popular trend are YA books about characters performing heroic acts in terrible circumstances (think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games who saves her little sister then her whole community) or unrequited love (the Twilight series). My first novel, Qualities of Light, sold as YA; it was about causing an accident that put the main character's brother in a coma, just as she falls in love with her best friend. Violence, abuse, addiction, mental illness are fair game in YA. Kole says teen readers lean towards two topics, especially: romance and darkness. Teens look for empowerment through their literature, the characters they read about. They may not feel powerful in their own lives yet, but they want to read about characters who are struggling for it--gaining it, too. YA books need to be much longer than MG, about 60,000 words.
Some researchers estimate that a good percentage (25 percent or higher) of readers ages 25-44 read YA literature. Some publishers are taking advantage of this with offerings that have a YA narrator but an adult topic. A great book by a colleague at Grub Street, Celeste Ng, called
Everything I Never Told You,
is one of these hits. Another might be
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green. Ng's book deals with a missing older sister, told from her younger sister's point of view. Green's story is about teens who are terminal cancer patients and fall in love.
A fantastic resource for all things kid lit is
Writing Irresistible Kidlit
by Mary Kole, quoted above, a literary agent who used to work at Crown Books. Check it out as your writing exercise this week. It has great tips even for writers aiming at adults.
Metaphors in Your Story--What Are They, How to Use Them, When to Use Them
I'll never forget the first year of my MFA. I had a great adviser, a well-published writer, who was also a minimalist. I am not. I love lyrical prose. So we were an odd match that turned out to be one of the best parts of my expensive education.
As my adviser, Rebecca required me to send her a packet of new writing every two weeks. She would read the pages and mark them up, then return them to me. her handwriting was atrocious but her comments were stellar. She didn't hold back. If she loved something, she raved. If she hated it, she said that too. She assumed, rightly so, that at this point in my writing career I was past coddling. I just wanted the straight truth.
I went overboard on the lyricism one month. Probably because I was reading Virginia Wolff for an assignment. I loved her images, her metaphors, so I got very poetic in my pages.
Rebecca didn't hold back, as usual. Page after page with a red slash across all the writing. About ten pages of this, and she just wrote ENOUGH! in big letters.
She did take time to explain. And assign me away from Wolff and towards minimalist writers--writers who use no imagery at all. I needed a strong dose.
It took some months to recover from working with Rebecca but my writing was a lot better. I didn't abandon my love for lyricism, metaphor, and poetic image in my writing. All these devices are lovely. But only if and when they serve the story.
A writer in my
part 2, Your Book Starts Here online class
recently emailed me with a great question about metaphor. "Recently I've read some articles on metaphors," she wrote, "and how we should perhaps plan a whole revision around inserting metaphors in each scene. Is this good practice, or do you think they should just arise from the story...or at least not be placed in every scene intentionally. I know metaphors help create that picture/meaning in a reader's mind, but how methodically should we do it?"
Magic of Metaphor
When you pair an object, movement, or other element with an image that is not related--
her hands were small doves
--you expand a reader's involvement with image in your writing. Image connects with theme, or subtext. The greater meaning. Implying that hands were small doves gives an immediate impression of fluttering, perhaps of plumpness, of the shyness that doves can exhibit.
Some writers, like Ray Bradbury who famously said "I am a metaphor machine," use a metaphor in every scene, as the writer in my class alluded to. This requires a lot of natural skill with images, first. Also, it requires enough detachment from your love of image to see if the metaphor is indeed serving the story or weighting it down unnecessarily, as in my experience with my adviser, Rebecca.
Used with skill, metaphor can enrich your writing tremendously. Unlike simile, which uses "like" and "as," metaphor just places the object with the image--no explanation or comparison words required. Metaphor asks the reader to leap into image without help from the writer. Simile feels tentative. It can sound cliche. That's because so many writers start with simile; it's easier, it's more common.
Some writers call metaphor a "dangerous" writing tool. If you'd like to get started using metaphor, one helpful technique in
this excellent article
from The Write Place is to comb through a chapter and locate all the similes. Then replace them with metaphor
. Similes offer placeholders--you already know you want an image comparison there, but maybe you couldn't think of a truly original one when you were drafting. At revision, you can go back and see how many you can replace with metaphor.
Some writers work with extended metaphors. I teach this technique for those ready to build theme--because an extended metaphor, or an image that recurs throughout the book, immediately evokes subtext or thematic meaning. Extended metaphors are tricky, nearly impossible at early drafts. Revision-stage, they are fun to work with.
Danger of Metaphors
Two common warning signs that your metaphors aren't serving your story:
1. If you use too many metaphors all at once, the reader gets image overload (back to my experience with Rebecca). Instead of writing ENOUGH! on your pages, the reader will just stop reading. How many is too many? The best way to answer this is to read a chapter from a favorite published novel or memoir. Count up the metaphors. There might be one per scene, one per chapter, or one per page (one per page is a LOT, so be wary of this unless you are incredibly skilled). Test it out in your own writing. Read it aloud, get some feedback.
2. If you mix metaphors, the image falls flat. "She was a caged animal, riding a slippery slope of fear." The two images (caged animal and slippery slope) don't connect at all. The reader will be confused or turned off. End of story.
Your weekly writing exercise
Check out this great article on metaphor use--one of the best. It's called "Do Your Metaphors Rock?" and although it talks about song lyrics, the techniques are useful for any kind of writing.
Finding Close Readers--How to Be Smart with Feedback on Your Manuscript
Feedback is a tricky process. Lots of danger if you choose feedback partners that have something to prove--they're smart, literary, better than you could ever be. Or if you exchange with readers who just don't put in the effort, time, attention. Both extremes can wear a writer out, best case. Worse case, they can cause you to lose faith in your book.
A blog reader, Jason, is from the Midwest. He's writing historical fiction and has been through his share of writer's groups. Good ones, bad ones. But now that his novel is ready for whole-manuscript feedback, he wants to play the feedback game a little smarter.
Even though he's in a couple of writer's groups, nobody is at his stage--they are still crafting chapters. He needs a few really good close readers for his entire manuscript.
He's been in my classes, so he knows these readers will mostly be reading for content and structure. Waste of time to spend effort on language-level editing at this stage. In other words, it's too early to work on the proper placement of commas and clauses.
The content (what the story is about) and the structure (how it flows) comes before any fine-tuning. He doesn't want to get hung up on word choice, when he really needs big-picture comments.
He emailed me this week for suggestions. What are some good ways to find close readers who can give your whole manuscript good attention?
I've only found few whole-manuscript readers in writer's groups I've attended. Like Jason, most of my colleagues in writer's groups are working on earlier stages, building chapters or developing characters or researching. Most meetings focus on snippets of a story. That's absolutely necessary, and yet there's a point where a writer needs more.
You can hire someone. There are plenty of published writers, writing teachers, and coaches who will give whole-manuscript critiques for a fee. That can range from $1000-2000 (or more). But before Jason pays for professional-level comments, I suggested he take two online classes this fall. Use the classes as a way to find good readers.
In workshopping classes, like the ones I teach online for the Loft (see sidebar to the right for more information--they begin September 21), you'll get to post work and hear comments from both your peers and the instructor. Some intermediate level and advanced level groups will have small work groups to share chapters. You give and get feedback each week. You can learn a LOT about your fellow writers, their skill at giving suggestions that open doors for you as a writer.
Close reading isn't an easy skill to learn. It usually comes after years of giving and getting feedback.
The way I usually tell a good close reader:
1. They write more than a few sentences in response to your post.
2. They both compliment and offer suggestions--never just what's wrong, but also what's going well.
3. They welcome suggestions on their own work and take the time to say thanks or respond back in some small way, so the exchange is alive and mutually beneficial.
4. They listen to your requests about what you need help on. They don't get sidetracked with the language-level edits when content and structure help comes first.
My best readers have come from classes I've attended. Some are fellow students, some are instructors. After the class, I'll email them privately to ask about exchanging a couple of chapters, then see how it goes. If they are interested, if the good feedback continues, and if they are steady with their writing and the exchange continues past the first weeks, I know I've got a good partner.
It's taken about three years, but I now have five really good close readers, each with a different specialty. One is great on details, another really good with characters, a third excels at plot. We exchange large sections of our manuscripts. Some read whole manuscripts, some only chapters.
Jason needs to consider the time this method takes, and weigh it against the high risk (in my opinion) of contacting unknown writing partners and the high cost of hiring a professional reader.
Your weekly writing exercise this week is to assess where you are in this process--how close are you to needing close readers? Who do you have in mind? Get started now, before your manuscript is ready, and try out an exchange.
How to Crisp Up Your Writing--Revision Tools for Wordsmithing
I'm a lifelong learner--there's always so much new stuff to practice and absorb about making great books. I take different online classes for accountability and to keep up with new writing ideas.
This summer, I took two classes on revision.
We posted our writing for feedback. Writers were experienced and got mostly positive comments, but occasionally we'd see this: "I love your writing but can you make it a little crisper?"
Crisp writing. What is that? Tight, toned, well paced, fairly bouncing off the page. Stands out to a reader, an agent, an editor.
Easier said than written, I think!
Crisp doesn't usually appear in early drafts (if it does, you might be holding back too much, wordsmithing too soon!). Early drafts are about content and structure, exploring what you want the writing to say, what flow you're after. It takes a while to get these two aspects solid. In books, even longer. I find about 80 percent of total time with a book, from idea to publication, is spent on content and structure. So if you're still there, don't worry too much. Take your time--you need to get this part right before you begin to work on tightening the prose. Otherwise you'll have beautiful sentences that mean nothing.
But once you're ready to crisp it up, here are some global searches that help me a lot:
1. Search for "was" and "were" and "are"--any form of the verb "to be." E.B. White who coauthored the famous book
The Elements of Style, talks about this being a blah verb, one that doesn't provoke imagery or excitement in a reader. It's true--and when you do a search for "was," and begin to see how often you use it (
was staring instead of
stared, for instance), you'll be stunned. Replace with more direct, active, vivid verbs.
2. Then search for "-ing." Again, this form of the verb denotes progressive movement, rather than anything sharp and decisive. You'll need it sometimes, but writers use it a LOT more than they should, IMHO. Replace where you can.
3. Look for repetitive sentence patterns. My unconscious pattern is groups of three actions in one sentence (
they sat, ate, then left). Find yours--easier with feedback from a close reader. Then vary, vary, vary!
4. Watch out for your use of sentence fragments. These are great little punches every now and then but like any device, they can be overused.
5. Cut some of that imagery, especially as "stage set" at the opening of a chapter or scene. Do you need to set the stage? Can you just jump right into action?
6. Search for "-ly" words, the dreaded adverb which Stephen King rails against in his writing-craft book
On Writing. Delete whenever possible.
7. Search for "suddenly," "finally," and "at last"--these can create melodrama, so be sure you need them when you use them. I'm guilty of three to four "suddenly's" in one page!
There are more, but this should give you a good start. You will be amazed at how much your writing crisps up!
Tips for Surviving a Manuscript Read-Through (The Essential Last Step before You Send Out Your Book)
Most of my students and coaching clients know about the read-through. It's a full-manuscript read that you do at several stages in the book journey: after your draft is complete and before you revise, and before submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent.
The goal of the read-through is to see your work as a first-time reader would. That's important because most writers wear blinders. We mentally skip over stuff in our own writing. We just don't catch it all. Reading as a reader would, allows you to see your manuscript from completely different eyes. But it requires several steps. All are vital to making this work.
1. Move your manuscript out of Word or Scrivener. Within a text-editor, it's nearly impossible to read as a reader. Print it out or send it to your e-reader. I use Pages on my ipad.
2. Set aside time to do this. It's onerous. I find it usually takes me two weeks.
3. Read aloud if you can. You'll catch a LOT more this way.
4. Don't edit as you go. I can't emphasize this enough. Just mark the spots that catch your attention and may need fixing. In Pages, I highlight the word and click on comment, but leave the comment blank. It creates a yellow highlight on the page, which I come back to when I'm ready to fix. If you've printed out the manuscript, even easier--use a colored highlighter and make a slash mark in the margin.
Many writers cringe at this guideline. They feel they'll forget what idea or fix they had, when they come back later. In my experience, this rarely happens. I always seem to remember why the sentence or word didn't work.
If you start editing, you slip back into writer mode. You have to start over as a reader. Trust me on this one. I have read many manuscripts from clients or when I worked as an editor that lost their juice midway. I suspect the writer did well in the read-through until this point, then got seduced into editing and never regained the reader viewpoint.
5. It's best to read the entire manuscript before going back to edit individual chapters. You'll catch chapter-to-chapter transitions this way. If you only look at individual chapters, you'll miss this and your book may feel like separate anecdotes rather than a sequence of chapters.
Once you've completed your read-through, take a break. Several days, a week, even. It's been hard work, so relax that brain.
Then, when you're ready, come back to the printout or the e-manuscript and look at what you highlighted. Let the ideas and fixes begin to pop into your mind. Bring up each chapter on your computer and start repairing, expanding, deleting.
I recommend a final read-through, after you make these corrections. Sometimes, I do several more. After all, I only get one chance with most editors and agents. I want to make the book the best it can be.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're not ready for a full manuscript read-through, try a couple of scenes or chapters. Print or send to an e-reader and practice reading as a first-time reader would. Highlight, don't correct yet, and see what you find.
Using Pause Breaks to Strengthen the Pacing of Your Story
Right now, I'm working with a writer who is studying pacing: specifically, how to pace her chapters. She tends to deliver too much--too many images, too many ideas, too much happening--all at once. It feels like a freight train coming at the reader.
So we're studying the writerly device of pause breaks.
Very simply: in any genre of book, readers need time to absorb stuff. They hate not keeping up. They will vote by putting the book down, in all likelihood, if they get confused by too much coming at them. You're not there to urge them to pick the book up again--"It gets really good in a couple pages!"--so as a writer you have to anticipate this. By putting in those pause breaks.
In fiction and memoir, these are reflective scenes. The narrator (main character) might take time to think about something, reflect on it. And the reader can do the same. If you're writing a novel, memoir, biography, or other narrative story, you can use reflective scenes as your pause break.
Nonfiction has three devices to create pause breaks:
1. Story (illustrative anecdote)
2. Exercise or practical application
3. Visual change (sidebar, box, different font, cartoon, etc.)
In a chapter, consider the main event--action or idea--and ask whether you've incorporated any pause break. Maybe not in every chapter, especially in a fast-paced story, but soon enough that the reader can take a breath.
If you have too many pause breaks, there's a sense of stall-out. That's something to watch for, as well.
This Week's Writing Exercise
Look over two or three chapters in your current manuscript--they can be rough or polished--and ask yourself where you've placed reflective scenes or another device that gives the reader a pause to absorb what's been delivered, what's just happened. Do you need to re-flow any part of your chapter to allow for this?
Time Markers: How to Keep a Reader on Track with Your Story
A few months ago, I began exchanging chapters with a writer who has an incredible skill with something called "time markers." I feel very lucky to have her reading my chapters with time in mind. She has caught my natural sloppiness the way a good editor might, saving me and my reader from going off track and losing the story thread.
Are you aware of time markers in your story? They're vital in fiction and memoir, even in nonfiction. They're the little mentions of where we are in place, time of day, day of the week, even season, so that readers slide effortlessly through the sequence of events.
Many professional writers use timeline charts as part of their storyboarding or outlining process. They take each person in the story, for instance, and write a timeline of their events in sequence. What time of year it happens (season), then what day, then what time of day. It seems nit-picky when you're in early drafts, and I don't usually pay much attention at that stage, but in later revision it's essential.
A timeline chart might be as simple as the character's name, the scene, and three columns for (1) season, (2) day of the week, and (3) time of day. If events are hourly in your book, if they are even day after day, your total timeline might span a week or a month or a year. But if you are covering huge swatches of time, you'll really need this kind of time marking for yourself, so you know if three years have passed or a decade.
Once you have your timeline chart in place, there's a great sense of relief. At least for me. But then, as we write, we often lose track of the chart and move time all over the place. A scene starts out in daylight then suddenly there's a point where something is discovered by flashlight. Unless there's a time marker, showing that we've moved into nighttime, the reader will stop, possibly go back and reread (never a good thing), or put down the book altogether.
I know this happens to me a lot. I have my timeline chart but as I move into later drafts, I ignore it. Hence, the need for readers to catch this--if I can't do it myself.
Time markers can be obvious or subtle. Obvious time markers might be "Three days had passed with no word from Ella" or "Had it only been yesterday?" Clunky when you're writing them, but an instant relief for your reader. Now we know if the previous chapter happened two days or a week ago.
Subtler time markers include a sense of changing light in a room or space, the beginning of darkness outside and need for man-made light, how a person is dressed (which can show time of day or season), sleep and waking moments, and much more.
Stuff like this is tedious to keep track of. Most writers dislike it and ignore it. But nothing stumbles a reader faster.
Your writing exercise this week is to either try the timeline chart for one of your characters or scan 3-4 chapters or scenes to get acquainted with how you are using time in your story.
Seven Days to Getting Unstuck with Your Writing
One of my students recently emailed me about being stuck. He's worked on his novel for several years now, relying on workshopping feedback to keep him accountable. Recently he got some feedback from a hired editor and, although he totally agreed with the comments and knew the editor had nailed one of his manuscript's major weaknesses, he got stuck.
Suddenly, he couldn't write. No matter what he did. He was even finishing up an online class and had three more weeks of feedback available from other writers he really liked and trusted. He just stopped.
He emailed me because, in the past, we'd worked together and he knew I understood the intensity of his inner critic. He got through its negativity with small, steady steps, like weekly postings to this online class. Hiring the editor was a huge leap that his IC didn't like. Not one bit. It stepped up its campaign to discredit his writing and stop him from taking any more risks.
Once a writer gets in this kind of internal quagmire, it can take some work to get out. But it can be done.
We brainstormed a list of activities that might both (1) calm the inner critic and (2) get him interested in writing again. Some of them are my suggestions, culled from years of getting out of my own quagmires and helping others do the same.
I asked him to try a week of these tasks, spending time on one every day. Some would work, some were just designed to relax him and distract him from worrying about not writing. But some would begin to let that creativity bubble up again.
Here's the program we agreed on:
Day 1: Read aloud for 20 minutes from somebody else's writing (published) that you love. The reading aloud triggers a certain image-based part of the brain that bypasses the inner critic.
Day 2: Make a list of ideas you'd like to try in your own writing.
Day 3: Take a walk with your phone or a recording device and record ideas as you walk.
Do "morning pages" first thing when you wake up (three pages of journaling without editing---based on Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way) to dump the worry onto the page.
Day 5: Take one page of your own writing and read it aloud. Using a highlighter, mark anything you love (he surprised himself by finding quite a bit).
Day 6: Check in with a supportive community--his writing class--and make a commitment to post two new pages in two days. If he wasn't in a class, I'd ask him to find a writing buddy to send work to.
Day 7: Write one paragraph about what he might cover in these two pages. Expand it to one page, then two pages. SFD (shitty first draft) is fine.
I told him to email me after day 7 and report in. He'd been moderately successful, able to follow the program except for day 3 (he hates to walk). I asked him what he noticed by day 7.
"I was surprised at how totally OK my writing looked to me--it was a lot better than I thought on day 1," he said. "I guess I'd put a spin on it, because of being ashamed that the editor found that weakness."
I told him most writers can have this reaction. It helps if the editor (or coach) is available for some revision work, so the process doesn't just end with "what's wrong." Many are. His wasn't, but he learned from that too.
I checked in with him last week and he was finishing up his class. "I got some great feedback on my final posts," he said, "and I can't wait to work on the book again."
It's not unusual to get stuck when writing a book, or to have a raging inner critic appear when you take a big risk. Knowing what to do about it makes all the difference.
Your weekly writing exercise is to try this seven-day program, if you wish. Even if you're not stuck, you might find some great benefits.
When Does Your Inner Critic Appear? Three Scenarios of Self-Sabotage and How to Renegotiate Your Contract
Scenario #1: The new chapter draft is going pretty well. You're writing steadily, enjoying a renewed commitment to your book. Suddenly, from some dark place in your mind, a switch goes on. An unrelated thought or feeling slips in. Maybe something you forgot to do or say. A small mistake or failure. The thought distracts you and you slowly leave the story flow. You begin to hate the writing--or at least, it feels less delightful. Even a little boring, unoriginal? You're derailed.
You give a chapter draft to a friend, spouse, relative to read. You're pleased with it. You imagine they will be too. Maybe even impressed. They bring back comments. Even if they say, "I
it," a flood of (1) fear, (2) anger, or (3) shame hits you. You can't bear to look at the writing, to use their suggestions. It's all sucky anyway, and you really shouldn't waste your time.
You get sick, your cat gets sick, your kid gets into a fight at school, your boss goes on a rant with you as the target. Outer life overwhelm strikes, big time. Worry and agitation sucks up all your energy. Less and less of that energy goes to your book. After a week or two, you can't even remember it. When you force yourself to sit down and open the file, you're dismayed at how flaccid it is.
All these scenarios have something in common: they're fostered by the IC, our personal inner critic.
The inner critic is our internal gatekeeper. Its job is to protect us. It has a very loooong memory, way back to our first creative efforts in childhood. Unless we had an exceptionally supportive environment for our creativity, both at home and at school, we probably logged some embarrassing moments about "showing off" or "being unoriginal" or "did you really make that or did you copy it" or any number of other creativity slams. When we edge up to this again, as adults trying to write a book, the IC goes on amber alert.
It hovers and watches. As long as we're not really making progress, it's OK--we won't get hurt. But if we begin to do well or we expose our writing to others, however well-meaning, the IC raises the alert to red.
It'll begin to sabotage. However it can.
I have experienced this so many times--I get sick or my life explodes just as my book gets going good--that I no longer believe it's coincidental. I think we create these situations to protect ourselves, to have a damn good excuse not to write.
Don't believe me? Try logging it. When do you stop writing your book? Is it one of the scenarios above where you've (1) done well or taken a leap, (2) showed your writing to someone, or (3) let your outer life drama take over your creative energy?
You're not really victim to the IC. You created the contract with it, you can rewrite that contract.
Writers who keep writing, despite all the scenarios above, still have an inner critic. They've just learned to work with it. They aren't swept away by the fear, anger, or shame that can come when they raise their skills or share their writing or get pummeled by outer life events.
They write anyway. And they finish their books.
Your weekly writing exercise is to write a letter to your inner critic. Renegotiate your contract. Thank it for its lifelong service and ask for a little more leeway to do what you need to do.
In my week-long book-writing retreats each July on
I coach each writer about the IC and when it may hit. It's predictable for many. About midweek, sometimes sooner, a wall appears. The wall of past limits, those memories the IC uses to keep us limited now.
I recognize them as they begin to percolate in a writer and I coach that writer through. It can be hard to do without support and someone who's been there.
Best results can happen in the retreat environment: a breakdown leads to a breakthrough. Many writers emerge from these battles changed, the contract with their IC completely renegotiated.
My Favorite Tool for Checking Story Sequence
Two of my private clients are working on nonfiction books. They have a ton of expertise to share, but they normally teach in person, so putting their techniques and theories into a logical sequence on the page has proven challenging for both. They found my website and decided to work with me to check the structure of their books-in-progress.
I start them with basic structure analysis techniques, which I learned as an editor at different publishing houses. Most writers just write--they don't necessarily know anything about structure. Editors used to take care of that, but they don't anymore, so we writers must learn to analyze the structure of our own books and get them in shape before we submit the manuscript.
Once a client has put together a basic structure analysis chart (see last week's post, below), I work with them on the sequencing of chapter purpose, using one of my favorite tools.
What Question Does Your Chapter Ask?
Each chapter (or scene, eventually) must have a clear purpose. It must contribute something to the story--not just be there because it's well written and you like it.
An easy way to figure out a chapter's purpose is to find out what question it asks.
Chapters can ask simple questions that have to do with what's happening onstage (Will I get caught as I'm searching my parents' bedroom? Will we win the fight? Will I get away before he sees how embarrassed I am?). They can also be more complex, or conceptual (Why do we see the world this way? What's wrong with our approach to money? Where does our belief in might versus right stem from?).
It takes a bit of work to figure out a chapter's question. Some chapter questions will be obvious. Their purpose is very clear. Others, not so much.
Once you have the questions sketched out, copy and paste them into a new document so you're not distracted by the chapter text. Look at the sequence of just questions. Do they create a clear path for the reader? Are the questions, or chapter purposes, logically arranged?
Once you get the chapter purpose described, you can use this tool for character arcs--the progress of a character or narrator or reader through the story. For each chapter, write the stage of the character's consciousness. Describe their awareness of themselves, the problem, its solution. Then copy and paste these descriptions into a new document and study the sequence. Is there a clear series of changes, that make sense, from beginning to end of story?
When I've tried this for a manuscript-in-progress, I usually find big holes. It's become my favorite technique for story sequence--and the quickest way to catch the places I've raced ahead and left my reader behind.
Writing versus Structuring--Why Both Are Important and How to Toggle Between Them in Your Writing Sessions
John, from Texas, is writing a memoir--his first book. He's a good writer and he's accumulated about 30,000 words so far, writing in what he calls "flow writing," where he just sits down each day and lets the memories pour onto the page.
John's story is good--riveting, in fact. But a few months ago he reached a point of being confused about where he was going with the book. He'd written as much as he could remember, but now he felt stuck. He found me through my website and contacted me for private coaching.
When I read his rough-draft manuscript, I could see its strengths: good wordsmithing, a strong sense of detail, vivid scenes, and lots of action.
I could also see that the structure was very weak. I often got lost as a reader, due to large time gaps. John wrote in a condensed form, so some of the scenes were so summarized, it was hard to grab meaning from them, as a reader.
He expected me to coach him on the writing but I asked if he'd be willing to work on the structure first. My first assignment was a structure analysis chart, a tool I use with many of my private clients: I asked him to step back from his writing and create a chart of what he had so far, the sequence of events, the different locations (there were many), and the purpose of each event.
He said it was much harder than he expected, and not nearly as fun as the flow writing--but as he worked on the chart, he began to see how he'd overlooked big parts of his story that would've provided meaning to the events, how often he summarized ("I was bored," he told me, "and just wanted to get through it"), and how often he repeated the same kind of scene, just because he liked it.
By the end of our eight weeks, John was very fired up about his manuscript. He had a map now, a new direction and energy. He no longer thought of his book as a "swamp of words," as he said.
That's the beauty of structure work.
This past weekend I taught at a wonderful writers conference in Boston, The Muse and the Marketplace. It attracts about 800 writers from all over, plus many agents, editors, publishers, and marketing gurus of the publishing industry. Collum McCann and Charles Baxter were among the luminaria. It was truly an event.
In my workshop on Friday, we explored why structure is such a missing ingredient for so many of us. How hard it is for us to believe that structure is useful. It seems not creative, so linear compared to the actual writing process.
After the workshop, one writer emailed me:
I came out of your class feeling that structure is liberating," she said. "Know where you're going, and like the truth, it will set you free.
She's right: Structure does set you free. It helps you get objective about your own story. It takes your story beyond your abilities, makes it more universal.
When we have an idea for a book, that original vision feels whole, complete in our minds. The force of its image drives us to write. But as we write, we must force this wholeness through the narrow funnel of the linear brain. It can get squeezed and jumbled, come out on the page with gaps.
In our minds, it's still whole. But on the page, there are missing pieces.
A friend who studies dreams once explained it this way: When you dream, your dream is complete and whole in your inner worlds. Then it has to funnel through the "making sense" part of the mind, like being pushed through a narrow neck. The images jumble. The beginning may come out as the end. It still makes sense in your mind, but if you try to explain it to another person, it may not. (Ever listen to someone recount a dream? You probably know what my friend is talking about.)
How do you find these missing pieces, this awkward sequence? Some writers use feedback. I find structural analysis, like the chart John worked on, is a faster way. It can show you where you need to expand or contract or rearrange.
Writing is a very creative and original act for many of us (except on those days when it's not!). It's important, though, to know the other task: structuring. Once you write, you need to step back and see if the structure is also clear.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Try a mini-version of a structure analysis chart. Take one chapter (or about 10-15 pages of your writing) and break it into scenes or islands. Each time you change location, time, or event, make it a new scene or island.
Make a chart in Excel or Word with four columns across the top. Place a brief description of each island (5-7 words or less) in the first column, with each island getting its own row. Label the second column "event," the third column "people," and the fourth column "place." Take your first island in row 1 and jot down in the "event" column what happens onstage--what action, if any. In the "people" column, jot down who is onstage in that island. List everyone. Continue to the "place" column and describe where it happens.
Things to watch for:
1. Does something happen in each scene or island? If not, why not?
2. Do the same people appear in every island or scene?
3. Does everything happen in the same place--or in too many places?
4. Is it hard to break the islands apart (they are too packed)?
How Do You End Your Story? Where to End, How to Decide, What to Make Sure You Include
Andrea, one of my online students, send me a great question this week: "I haven't quite decided how my story is going to end," she wrote. "I have been mulling this very question for months, and I cannot come up with an answer. It's really perplexing and I think it's keeping me from moving forward."
She also mentioned being worried about covering too much time in her novel (one whole year). Funny thing, these two questions are related. If you solve one, you can solve the other.
Creating a Satisfying Ending
For this week's writing exercise, here's
that really helped me know how to write a satisfying ending for my stories. It's from
and it's about how John Cheever taught this writer the secret to endings.
And if you get inspired to work on your own ending (your book's ending!), here's my personal checklist:
1. Do all the major plot threads wrap up in some way--even if they are not happy resolutions, will the reader feel like the author didn't leave anything hanging?
2. Does the ending chapter loop back to the beginning? Often, skillful writers will make their last chapter echo back to the first chapter with repeat of location, people, or the major conflict being discussed.
3. Is there anything started in the last chapter (a significant event)? This is usually not a great idea, unless you're writing a sequel.
4. Has the narrator or main character changed in some way? Is there something they didn't get that they really wanted--which is quite human--and they need to accept that?
5. Is there too much "Hallmark channel" feel about the ending? How could you twist or alter it in some way, to tone down the overly sweet feel? (Ignore this advice if you're writing a fairytale or a Harlequin romance. They usually end very sweetly.)
How Much Time to Cover
Decide where to end based on questions 1 and 4. If you work with a storyboard and a chart about how your character grows or changes, you should be able to see what question each thread asks as the story begins.
The event thread (shown on a storyboard) will present a problem at the beginning. The story's plot will try to address it--perhaps solve it, perhaps come to a different resolution. When that happens, your event arc is complete.
The narrative arc, or how the character grows and changes, also presents something at the beginning. The character usually has a need, a fear, a longing, something she or he must do or have or become. When they reach a point of resolving that--or accepting who they are, even without that--the narrative arc is complete.
This is how you decide how much time to cover. And how to choose your ending spot.
It sounds pretty simple, even formulaic. I get relief from it. All I have to do is ask myself two questions: did the event I started with come to any resolution, and did the character grow and change and come to any acceptance.
Back away from your story this week and try it. It might help you move forward in surprising ways. And even finish your book!
How to Avoid Middle Slumps--Maintaining Tension in Your Story
Tonight I'm chatting with one of my online classes. Our topic is slumpy middles--not our bodies, but our books. Many books slide down the tension scale in the middle, as the initial action subsides and the finish line is still far in the distance.
Keeping the middle active and interesting is not easy. On our chat, we're talking about a few proven techniques for brightening up the middle of your story.
Becky, who reads this blog, sent a great question about slumped middles. She called this the part where "your character rallies and makes some kind of decision after hitting a low point, and things get a little better." Yes, that's true, I told her. The character (or narrator in memoir) will usually fall for a while after the story starts. Things often get worse. The character hits a low point and there's a kind of leveling out. Some writers call this the "first turning point" of the story.
This is where things can get a little dicey, in terms of tension. As the character is "recovering from the problem" that the book started with, it can easily get slow. As Becky says, "How do you keep the tension and suspense in that section when the trajectory is supposed to be bit more positive?"
Here's the short list from my online chat tonight (thank you, writers!):
1. Create a twist at the end, and work it backwards, planting clues that change and enliven the middle. Such as . . . an enemy turns out to be a friend or vice versa.
2. Introduce a new character or a mentor.
3. Create dramatic action--this was a big one!--and place where slumps usually occur. If you can't think of actions to try, make a list of 10 dramatic events and try out one of them in a freewrite.
4. Change locations! (Think Eat, Pray, Love)
5. And my favorite . . . stay away from interior monologue (thoughts, feelings, memories) and get people moving onstage.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Take a middle chapter and try one of the ideas above. See if it makes your middle less slumped and more on edge.
Plotting and Pantsing--When to Plan and When to Write, and Why Both Are Useful as You Build Your Book
Erin, a blog reader who has taken my online book-writing classes, wrote with a great question: "I'm struggling a bit of time management in terms of planning vs writing. Case in point, I get about 30-45 minutes of writing a day. I feel like this should be used towards actually writing my book. The planning exercises are helpful but they don't feel like real, actual writing. So on days where I'm planning and world building and working on character profiles, etc., I feel like I'm not writing or progressing in terms of my novel."
Erin wondered about the balance between what she called "actual writing" and all the planning and plotting that goes into building a book's structure.
"Right now I feel guilty planning but stuck writing," she said. "It's a terrible place to be!"
Welcome to the world of structure versus writing, or plotting versus pantsing, as it's known in many writing circles. Some writers love to know where they're going ahead of time--the plotters or planners. Others love the discovery process of just writing and seeing what emerges.
I usually start off as a pantser. I like to write and brainstorm and freewrite and explore ideas for a while. I even take it to an extreme and do much of my freewriting in a notebook, longhand, because the writing comes out differently than typed on a computer. I like making collages of my characters and designing the "set" of my scenes with visual maps. I really don't know my story until I play this way.
Another writer I know approaches her books completely in reverse. She's a plotter. She writes thrillers, so it makes sense--she says it's hard to write a mystery without some sense of where you're going to end up. She likes to have her storyboard (a visual map of the plot) all nailed down before she begins writing. She's like this in real life too--very organized and scheduled. I'm very spontaneous, when I have the chance.
So, it really depends on your wiring. Neither approach is better than the other. I think the best recipe is a combination of the two.
Say you begin as a plotter. You can get a good draft together, you can even begin editing. But I've read plotters' manuscripts as a editor and there can be a certain dryness, a certain lack of surprise, in the pages. So I advise plotters take a break midway, step away from knowing where they're going and explore (via freewrites) something unexpected. It might be just a character interview where they ask some new questions. Or rewriting a blah scene from a different person's point of view. That can shake things up, bring in fresh elements.
If you begin as a pantser, you'll have a blast in those first weeks, months, or years of writing. You'll write reams. Eventually, though, you'll be swimming in all those words with no idea of your structure. I get a lot of pantsers in my book-structuring classes. They feel an immense relief at the storyboard work and finally organizing what they have. But their nature is exploratory, so eventually, like Erin, they may get annoyed or stuck with all that linear work. Time to get back to the writing, keep the energy moving.
My writing routine consists of both: I like to freewrite or explore (maybe do a collage or character bio) every writing session. I also like to organize (maybe work on my chapter summary or storyboard) every writing session. Keeps both my pantser and plotter sides happy.
What's your preference? How do you manage the two approaches?
|Storyboarding for Writers